views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Not About Heroes
Trafalgar Studios
11th November 2014

★★★★☆

Simon Jenkins and Alasdair Craig as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

Photography provided by Feelgood Theatre Productions

I have to admit, war plays never really appealed to me. Then I saw a new piece of writing called The Glasshouse and that made me wonder if I'd completely misjudged the genre. Having seen Stephen MacDonald's Not About Heroes, I'm inclined to think I've been missing out up until now. As in The Glasshouse, MacDonald doesn't glamorise war, rather he conveys the horrific cost of it through recounting the true story of celebrated war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Siegfried (Alasdair Craig) is a man who has seen war up close. He has lost a younger brother and his own exceptionally brave conduct has netted him a medal. He could be the perfect poster boy for the Army, but he's thrown his Military Cross in the river and penned a letter claiming that WWI is being drawn out by for longer than necessary by the powers that be. There has to be something wrong with a decorated soldier who denounces war, so he has been hastily diagnosed with "shell shock" and sent to convalesce at Craiglockhart.

When aspiring poet Wilfred (Simon Jenkins) is checked into the same military hospital in Edinburgh, he immediately seeks out Siegfried, who hasn't just gained a reputation for his objections to the war but for his poetry. Wilfred is completely awestruck by the older man, who decides to take him under his wing and mentor him. Over time, Wilfred's dogged devotion is rewarded by Siegfried returning that affection in equal measures.

There's never a hint of anything physical between the two men - it's not that sort of play, or that sort of era - but it's clear that their relationship extends beyond mere friendship. There's something inherently tragic in how they never acknowledge their grand love, and yet there's something beautiful too. Wilfred always looks in complete adoration at Siegfried, but Siegfried always averts his gaze, staring in to the distance. It looks as if he's doing so for no reason, but he's patently trying to avoid locking eyes and revealing too much of his true feelings otherwise.

Siegfried is very much from a stiff upper lip background, going some way to inform his treatment of Wilfred and the repression of his own bi (or homo)sexuality. He towers tall in his army uniform, with a witty, brusque and sharp manner which we imagine is often taken the wrong way - a bit like Graham Chapman, really. Wilfred by contrast is far more emotional, and less confident. He knows he wants to be a poet too, but doubts his own skills and experience.

Given MacDonald's script refers to the injustice of "the scars they can't see" receiving less recognition than physical wounds, you could be forgiven for assuming Not About Heroes was written for 2014's 100-year remembrance of those who bore arms in the Great War. However, it was written and performed back in the early 1980s, when post-traumatic stress disorder was only just starting to be acknowledged as a real condition. This play is three decades old, but MacDonald was ahead of his time in his compassion.

A great deal of research has gone into putting the play together; some of the poets' most celebrated works are recited - including Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth and Sassoon's To My Brother. Historical facts are woven into the dialogue naturally (such as Sassoon's mother's fondness for opera) and the letters exchanged by the two men are in fact real. Of course there's an element of fictionalisation, but this is no Braveheart: MacDonald's play is respectfully written, and yet it doesn't feel like any artistic intent has been compromised in doing so.

The words of poetry scrawled on the back wall show the importance of writing to the two men, with designer Lara Booth making language ever-present. The stage is divided into two distinct areas, evoking Katie Lias's set from last year's production of Address Unknown at the Soho Theatre. Karen Lauke's sound design, which includes a solo cello score by Ailis Ni Riain, brings a solemnity and poignancy. The scratchy strings are far more powerful here than a full orchestra could be.

Not About Heroes is a tender, touching story, with the moments of humour always warm, rather than overly biting or cruel. Director Caroline Clegg manages to combine a staunchly anti-war message with a blossoming romance without the two different elements ever seeming jarring. The idea of a play which covers the brutality of war being staged by a company called Feelgood seems at first ironic, but amongst the tragedy, there are plenty of scenes which move you and make you smile.

Not About Heroes opened on 10th November and runs until 6th December 2014 at Trafalgar Studios.

Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)



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