There are at least two stories going on in Stephen Macdonald’s 35-year-old drama about the Great War and its effect on the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. One concerns their literary relationship, basically how Owen comes to be the greater poet after learning from the other and being helped by him; and the second deals with an emotional tie, concerning repressed homosexual love. That Sassoon was in deeper denial about the latter than Owen is only part of the tragedy, for it would be years before anything could have come of any sort of open enactment.
The players in Macdonald’s two-hander thus have to balance these strands and even show how they are intertwined. Owen, as an officer in thrall to Sassoon’s reputation on arrival at Craiglockhart, the Scottish hospital dealing with shell-shocked soldiers (today we call it post-traumatic stress disorder), is never far from morphing into something far more personal, but it is Sassoon throughout the play who draws back from any physicality with edgy, patrician-like revulsion. Owen is tactile; Sassoon is inhibited.
Although the play has been revived to mark various First World War anniversaries – the 90th in 2008 of the end of the war, the centenary in 2014 of its declaration – it’s those which commemorate the two poets themselves that are more relevant. In 1986, the centenary of Sassoon’s birth, a new production was staged at the National Theatre; and in 1992, the forthcoming hundred years since the birth of Owen prompted Macdonald to direct a revised version of the play for Glasgow, which was then staged in Shrewsbury, Owen’s home town.
Daniel Llewelyn Williams
Daniel Llewelyn Williams as Sassoon and Iestyn Arwel as Owen are perfect foils, judging their double coming-together adroitly, with Williams making us wonder how much Owen’s attraction for him is cerebral, how much sexual-spiritual, and Arwel suggesting ever so slightly that he is as much aware of his potential as he is grateful for Sassoon’s refining of it. This is a complex relationship, not least in terms of Sassoon’s complete lack of wounded pride as his friend quickly occupies the Parnassian heights. Both were valorous in war, Sassoon famously outspoken about its futility and allowing his anger to get to him, Owen seeming to have discovered in conflict and the ‘pity’ of it his vindication as a poet. Owen has nothing to lose in expressing his love, while Sassoon is riddled with doubts about it. At least two battles are going on. Unlike Owen, Sassoon survived the war and therefore his ordeals, coming to some difficult accommodation with the private ones.
In a way, Macdonald could have written a play about homosexual love in wartime without raising its profile by having as the protagonists a famous literary figure and another who was soon to become one. In terms of the love interest, the literary or any other interest could have been neutral or non-existent. Sassoon didn’t recognise and laud Owen’s fast-emerging talent because he was infatuated with him, nor did Owen confuse Sassoon the established poet with Sassoon the flawless object of his affections. These were literary reputations in fast motion about a slow-evolving, and ultimately doomed, passion.
The play’s had plenty of exposure since it won an Edinburgh Fringe ‘First’ award in 1982, not least in a production by Theatr Clwyd at Mold three years ago, in which Williams also played Sassoon. Williams’s familiarity with the role may be enabling him to mine its deeper riches, not least the idea that Sassoon’s irascibility was in part prompted by Owen’s under-appreciation – though not total ignorance – of his (Owen’s) gifts, his proximity to greatness. Arwel’s Owen invests that innocence with an almost bucolic dimension. Each outing draws attention to Macdonald’s success in surmounting the drama’s looming pitfall: how to make something moving, in both meanings of the word, about the writing of poetry. The play’s definitely not about heroes, though both characters were heroic, the dispirited Sassoon famously chucking his medals in the river.
Tim Baker’s focused production and the choice of play have added to an auspicious start for Flying Bridge, a new Gwent-based theatre company, here, with Seabright Productions, putting across the play’s themes clearly. It isn’t over-ambitious or heavy-laden with props and effects, so is ideal for touring to small venues, where its dramatic substance will register all the more forcefully. On tour a company has to adapt to venues of different sizes, and at Abergavenny’s Borough Theatre, where this reviewer saw the production, some of the intimacies could have been more audibly voiced. Oliver Harman’s designs are perfectly circumscribed and concentrated, Kevin Heyes’s lighting and Dyfan Jones’s complementary sound subtle and unobtrusive. This is a company worthy of support in an ever-active Welsh theatre sector.
Visit the production website (www.notaboutheroes.info) for details of the current tour, which takes in Welsh and English venues.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard
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