NOT ABOUT HEROES
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd April, 2017
It seems there were a lot of poets sent to fight the Bosch in the First World War. We seem to hear a lot about them in any case. Stephen Macdonald’s play deals with the friendship struck up between two of them, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland, where they are convalescing with nervous disorders. Sassoon narrates the story from fifteen years after the end of the war and Macdonald wisely uses verbatim lines taken from the correspondence between the two friends so what we get is a dramatic reconstruction of scenes – Owen’s poetry is called into service to give us glimpses of life in the trenches and, especially in the second act, the men exchange anecdotes of the horrors they have witnessed. But this is not a war story; it’s more of a repressed love story, a bromance we’d call it these days, as the men dance around their feelings for each other while braving the worst of circumstances.
George Bandy is a somewhat deadpan Wilfred Owen; without overdoing the stammer, he gets over the poet’s nervousness and awkward shyness – and there are also moments when his passionate outcries blaze as strongly as any words the poet penned. As Siegfried Sassoon, Andrew Smith gives a masterly performance, perfectly at home in his character’s skin and affectations. Sassoon is a likeable if slightly pompous fellow and his knack for understatement is especially poignant.
Director Sallyanne Scotton Moonga keeps this wordy, rather slow-moving tale engaging with changes of pace. The set by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris provides a stark backdrop of silhouetted barricades against a changing sky, along with real world touches to ground the characters at their desks. Mike Duxbury’s lighting and Roger Cunningham’s sound design enhance the nightmares of the men, with flashes and sounds of the war that haunts them both. But it is the presence of the two actors that hooks us in – Smith’s effortless Sassoon will stay with me for a long time.
A timely production that reminds us that in Owen we lost a formidable talent, and far too many lives in a senseless and misguided conflict.