The Somme on the Stage

17/06/2016 15:51

It feels strange writing an article about the play I saw in Liverpool recently - a play about the First World War - because the news is filled with so many shocking killings: the shooting of 49 young people in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida; the vicious murder of Jo Cox, a young Labour MP in Yorkshire.

These recent deaths are horrific and thinking about them makes it difficult to write about the First World War, when the number of casualties was off the scale - even by the standards of the day when death on the battlefield was an expected outcome of war.

The play I saw was set in the Battle of the Somme which took place a hundred years ago. On July 1st 1916, the first day of the battle, there were 57,470 British casualties (including 19,240 dead). By the end of the two-month battle there were 419,654 British and Commonwealth casualties, of whom 95,675 had died.

How do you Make Sense of a Massacre?

How do you make sense of such numbers? All I have are questions: why did they order so many people to march slowly towards German machine guns? Has our country ever experienced such a slaughter? How do you organise funerals for so many people? Did all the families of the bereaved get a letter and, if so, how long after their son was killed? How did the government react?

My biggest question is: how do you write a play about such a massacre? Do you address the big strategic issues? Characterise the generals and politicians? Try to explain what happened? Portray a family or a military unit?

Patrick McGuinness, author of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, didn't address any of my questions. He did what playwrights and authors have been doing for generations: he wrote about a small group of people who were involved. In portraying their hopes and fears and loves, by focusing on a microcosm, he brought the whole thing to life.

It was produced by four theatre companies -- Everyman & Playhouse (Liverpool), Abbey Theatre (Dublin), Citizens Theatre (Glasgow) and Headlong (London) - and will be playing in Ulster, Ireland, and Cambridge until October this year. You can see the schedule and booking details here. It's well worth looking out for.

Haunted by WW1

The play starts with a mad-looking old man who, barefoot and ragged, shouts at God in the style of King Lear: "I do not understand", he bellows to the heavens, "your insistence on my remembrance." This angry monologue with God continues and it becomes clear that this old character, Kenneth Pyper, is the only survivor among his group of friends at the Somme. Although he has survived the massacre he has been haunted by the memory of it ever since.

His 7 dead comrades start to appear on stage, in full WW1 battle-dress, but he can't talk to them. They are ghosts; they move slowly and don't speak. By the end of the scene they briefly point their guns at the audience, as if about to go into battle. This is one of the most disturbing parts of the show, but it's over in a moment.

One-by-one the 7 other characters come in and, as they banter with one another, we get to know them. They each appear in their own civilian clothes and slowly change into military gear. Despite this uniformity they each establish their own characters and get paired up, so the group of 8 becomes four groups of two.

An important scene takes place in Northern Ireland when they are home on leave. Their dedication to the war becomes clear, as well as their prejudice against Catholics and it's strange to think that all the Irishmen who fought in WW1 had volunteered to fight and were Protestant. The Catholic majority were considered too untrustworthy to join the army and the Easter Rising (a Catholic rebellion in Dublin against British colonial rule) which took place in 1916 only reinforced this prejudice.

The production itself was slick: the set was minimalist, adaptable and served well as barrack room and trench; the lighting and sound were subtle, vital for the atmosphere but strangely unobtrusive (I hardly noticed them); the WW1 costumes seemed authentic; but the best thing about this play was the casting, acting and directing. It all fitted together perfectly.

I was numb at the end of the performance, but felt I had picked up some of the emotion of what happened 100 years ago.