If they know the truth, it’ll have to stop. It’s been the cry of peace campaigners down the ages; yet a century on from the Great War, we still have politicians vying to show their willingness to use weapons far more horrific than the soldiers of 1914-18 could have imagined.
If they failed to end war, though, some First World War poets made an unparalleled effort to capture its horror in words that would make the truth unavoidable; and two of the finest were Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who met in the summer of 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Young Owen was recovering from severe shell shock, while the older Sassoon was being kept out of public view after writing a fierce denunciation of the war; and the passionate friendship that sprang up between them is the subject of Stephen Macdonald’s beautiful 1982 play, now revived in this fine touring production by Eden Court, in cooperation with former Dundee Rep and Traverse director Philip Howard.
It’s perhaps slightly unfortunate, for Howard’s production, that it comes at the end of two years of intense centenary commemoration, featuring a whole series of productions of WWI dramas. Yet there’s no mistaking the intensity with which he and his company seek to reimagine Macdonald’s exquisite text, and to deal with the structure of a play whose second half often only acts out what is already implicit in the first.
Ali Watt and Thomas Cotran deliver fascinating, well-thought-through performances as Sassoon and Owen, with Watt powerfully evoking the contorted body-language of the terminally inhibited Englishman, although he needs to maintain enough eye contact with the audience not to lose their sympathy. The two lead actors are accompanied here by a third figure, a patient, silent batman beautifully played by Ewan Petrie, whose presence demonstrates how the class system survived into the war.
And in a high-risk but successful innovation, Howard and movement director EJ Boyle introduce some stylised, dance-like sequences towards the end, capturing both the unexpressed physical intensity of Sassoon and Owen’s relationship, and the strange extremes of violence and tenderness seen on the terrible battlefield that finally defines them both - Owen as one of the fallen, Sassoon as an unwilling survivor, and both, first and last, as true poets of the horror of war.
Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tomorrow; Byre, St. Andrews Wednesday & Thursday, Traverse Theatre Edinburgh Friday & Saturday, and on tour until 24 October.