views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Glasshouse
Tristan Bates Theatre
2nd November 2014


Max Saunders-Singer and John Askew as Pip and Blythe

Photography © Vincent Rowley Photography

Like many people at this time of year, I walked into the Glasshouse with a poppy pinned to my coat. But when we put some spare change into a box rattled by a Chelsea pensioner or Army cadet, what are we thinking about? Who are we thinking about? Be honest, it's "our boys" on the front line who did "their bit", isn't it? Not all soldiers who died back in the Great War were shot by the enemy; hundreds were executed by their own people on grounds of cowardice. The Glasshouse is about remembering them too.

It's an ugly side of war that Max Saunders-Singer seeks to delve into with unflinching directness. Often a playwright will make one character his mouthpiece, here Saunders-Singer goes one step further, playing this figure himself. Pip refuses to bear arms; a conscientious objector. He's being held in a makeshift military prison, together with Moon (Sam Adamson), a lad of only 19. Moon has seen battle, been injured physically, mentally and perhaps not unsurprisingly, has tried to flee.

You have to remember, post-traumatic stress disorder wasn't officially recognised until 1980, leaving Moon's actions with no reasonable explanation in the minds of his commanding officers. They don't see a mentally damaged boy in need of support; they see a deserter. Both Moon and Pip are awaiting the results of their hearings - no matter the verdicts, the war will definitely be over for them one way or another. It's home or the firing squad.

Harper (Simon Naylor) and Blythe (John Askew) are their captors, with Blythe particularly cruel. Having seen Askew do funny on many an occasion, it's a surprise to see him playing, well, a full-blown psychopath but it turns out he has the versatility and then some to pull this off. Blythe shows no compassion, tormenting the prisoners for his own kicks - he's an utterly hateful figure. We're sickened by his actions, helplessly watching his scenes unfold.

By contrast, Harper is just an officer giving orders, following orders, always with faith in the system. He does what he does, because others higher up have decided that's right. This obviously would be true for a lot of soldiers, but also draws some less-favourable comparisons from a war 20 years hence. At least, that's until Pip questions his role in the conflict and gets under his skin. Harper's crisis is captured beautifully by Naylor. Pip may be the author talking to us, but Harper is his poster boy for how he feels we should react.

Simon Naylor, Sam Adamson and Max Saunders-Singer as Harper, Moon and Pip

Photography © Vincent Rowley Photography

The set by DoBo Designs is truly gorgeous. It brings the stage forward, making for a more intimate setting. Sunlight and rain stream through the hole in the rickety shed; the smells of hay, smoke and corned beef all intermingle, alighting our senses and drawing us into this chapter of history and people all too easily dismissed. We don't just see the production, we smell it, we feel it - we're there an the glasshouse with Pip and Moon. The sound and lighting by Alex Silvester only adds to intensity. Smooth violins in the blackouts between scenes contrast with the angry noise of storms and warfare. Strobe lighting evokes the horror of Moon's earlier combat; for a few moments we allow ourselves to share his terror.

Of course, with Sebastien Blanc having previously directed Jez Butterworth's seedy gangster piece Mojo, it's to be expected that he can push the actors to some fairly dark places. And their performances are every bit as gritty and shocking as they need to be. Adamson only graduated this year yet his portrayal of an utterly broken solider is so heart-wrenching and stomach-turning. By the end of the production, my eyes were dry, but I felt physically pained, a tightly curled ball in the pit of my belly, aching in sympathy. This is such an emotional piece, you can't help but really connect with the men.

The Glasshouse is a play which exists lest we forget - lest we forget any of them. Not just the men who wanted to fight, but those who didn't. Grindstone's piece is a testament to suffering and a truly touching tribute that highlights the hidden cost of war.

The Glasshouse opened on 28th October and runs until 22nd November 2014 at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)

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