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NOT ABOUT HEROES – Trafalgar Studios, London.

Not About Heroes, Trafalgar Studios, London

It’s the battle of the touring war plays, with both Nicholas Wright and Stephen MacDonald’s accounts of a fateful meeting between poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon making timely viewing in this period of remembrance. Wright’s more recent Regeneration, which I reviewed a couple of weeks’ ago, is based on Pat Barker’s acclaimed 1990s trilogy, but MacDonald actually got there first with his version, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival back in 1982 – an appropriate venue for a play largely set in the city’s Craiglockhart War Hospital.

In 1917, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart following his Declaration condemning the prolongation of the war, while Owen’s experiences at the Front led to his treatment for “shell shock”, or PTSD. Barker and Wright place the poets’ tale among the wide context of the hospital and the methods of treatment for men haunted by horror, but MacDonald, though making reference to scars not visible on the outside, is more concerned with the two writers and their work. Craiglockhart and the Front itself serve as framing and fuel for the creation of enduring poetry, satisfying devotees interested in the origins of well-known lines, but somewhat limiting the potential for drama.

At its most engaging, Caroline Clegg’s thoughtful production of Not About Heroes functions as detailed artist biopic. Just as Sunny Afternoon’s action is punctuated by the famous Kinks songs drawn from sometimes bitter experience, so Sassoon (Alasdair Craig) and Owen (Simon Jenkins) search for a new mode of expression worthy of the terrible things they have witnessed. It’s fascinating to watch Owen’s development from producer of light, lyrical verses to the searingly penetrating chronicler of a generation’s tragedy, while laconic Sassoon only succumbs to his own demons when mesmerisingly reciting, spitting out words like machine-gun fire.

While Wright paints them as equals, the power dynamic between MacDonald’s poets is more rigid. Callow, stuttering Owen is timid in the presence of his idol, and Jenkins does lovely work to make this an affectionate comic portrait without descending into caricature. Craig’s aristocratic Sassoon is furiously sarcastic, wielding a golf club with menacing intent and both taking refuge in and itching to escape from his upper-class trappings. He’s every inch the formidable schoolmaster, pummelling Owen into greatness. When “Anthem for Doomed Youth” finally emerges, it’s a well-earned moment of emotive epiphany.

Less successful is the collage-like structure, with the story composed of overlapping and often repetitive letters, monologues, flashbacks and reported action. There are few surprises, even for those unfamiliar with the men’s biographies, with climactic events like Owen’s death at the Front signposted with irritating regularity. With the destination apparent, it places more of a burden on the journey, but MacDonald’s reverential attitude to his subjects means we’re presented more with loving hagiography than revelatory drama. Despite the title, this is really a piece of unadulterated hero worship.

That affection does result in the sharing of delightful period details, from Sassoon’s fury at H. G. Wells’ incomprehensible pink-ink scribbles to the portrait of early 20th-century literati: Sassoon offering an entry into high society for the son of a Shropshire railway clerk is as important as his creative mentorship. The pair retain their odd couple dynamic, even as Sassoon mellows and Owen grows in confidence and passionate candour. Their kinship, with a subtle hint of sexual attraction, is warmly conveyed.

One of the more striking elements of this production is Ailís Ní Ríain’s specially commissioned cello music, which – in contrast to a slightly heavy-handed script – offers notes of portent without resorting to Hans Zimmer-esque emotional manipulation. Lara Booth’s set follows MacDonald’s lead in placing the verse centre stage, with stark lines from both Sassoon and Owen emblazoned on the back wall. The play which frames that work doesn’t begin to match its extraordinary incisiveness, offering well-worn lines about the fallacies of honour and heroism without a balancing counter-argument or strong sources of conflict, yet it’s a pleasant frame for poetry that still has the power to devastate.

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Reviewed 11/11/14/

By Marianka Swain

10th November – 6th December 2014
Trafalgar Studios, London, SW1A.

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