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REGENERATION – Richmond Theatre, London.

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Photo by Manuel Harlan

The intellectually rigorous artistic response to the anniversary of the First World War continues with Nicholas Wright’s economical adaptation of Pat Barker’s acclaimed 1990s literary trilogy, which arrives at Richmond Theatre following a national tour. Regeneration and its sequels are notable for not just dealing with the horrors of the Front and arguably nonsensical rationale for entering into and doggedly continuing the war, but also offering a compassionate and thoughtful analysis of the psychological aftermath. The latter aspect is explored with great humanity in a focussed production from Simon Godwin, although it does lack both the visceral anguish and moral complexity of Barker’s work, tending towards the conventional in its brisk staging.

Of course, compressing three books into one play does necessitate losses, and this Regeneration, almost entirely an male affair, has much narrower concerns than its source material. Wright is particularly incensed by the pervasive guilt: survivors’ guilt for those who escaped certain death, the guilt of abandoning your countrymen even though your conscience demands withdrawal from senseless battle, and, in the case of forward-thinking Freudian neurologist and anthropologist Captain Rivers (Stephen Boxer), the horrifying guilt of “fixing” shell-shocked men so that they can be sent back into action – a cure with a particularly nasty irony attached.

Rivers works at Craiglockhart Army Hospital, where, in 1917, Siegfried Sassoon (Tim Delap) was sent for treatment. The poet wrote a notorious letter criticising the aims of the war and public response to it, which would have resulted in court martial had Robert Graves (Christopher Brandon) not convinced a medical board that his friend was suffering from a breakdown. Sassoon’s fellow patients included then aspiring poet Wilfred Owen (Garmon Rhys), to whom Sassoon became a mentor, helping him craft enduring work like Anthem for Doomed Youth. The possible homosexual aspect to their relationship is nicely hinted at, one more response that must be kept covert.

Alex Eales’ set powerfully renders the hospital a washed-out, haunted netherworld, in which ghosts roam freely. Richard Pinners’ illusions and Stuart Earl’s music are effective in evoking the inescapable traumas of the past which intrude upon the present, although Godwin relies a little too heavily on horror film conventions – the reveals are frightening for their suddenness, rather than their basis in a wider emotional landscape.

The one exception is the slowly drawn out, almost bland nightmare of Dr Yealland’s (Simon Coates) methods for dealing with mutism. Yealland, chillingly played by Coates as a matter-of-fact, benevolent figure, “treats” Cullen (David Morley Hale) by forcing open his mouth with a clamp and repeatedly shocking him with an electric prod. No matter that Cullen is silent because after witnessing the unthinkable, no response seems adequate; after a few rounds of this torture force out spluttered words, he’s pronounced fit for active duty.

Wright is particularly eloquent on the subject of communication and protective reactions, whether stammering, forgoing language, lying or fracturing the truth through the creative medium of poetry. In a world of institutional uniformity, the flash of individuality demonstrated by the latter is an act of searing courage. Interesting, too, is the debate over whether art has a duty to mirror reality or offer an escape from it, and whether first-hand experience is necessary for genuine wisdom.

Boxer is a shrewd Rivers, shifting from laconic detachment to relentless cross-examination as he solves the puzzles of his patients, though his supposedly crippling countertransference lacks punch. Yealland makes a decent sparring partner, matching his crisp wit, but is similarly adrift when gazing into a chasm of despair; his Sassoon is a little too convincing in his breezy façade. More successful are Rhys’s Owen, the guileless admirer turned passionate advocate, and standout Jack Monaghan as intractable Billy Prior, boldly broadcasting his northern working-class roots despite an environment steeped in snobbery. There’s good work, too, from Christopher Brandon as the charismatic Graves and Joshua Higgott as a paranoid patient clinging to his faith.

This is not a revelatory Regeneration, but it does smartly condense Barker’s novels into an engaging piece of drama and offer a poignant reminder that the horror of war doesn’t end when truce is called. The poetry of greats like Sassoon, Owen and Graves echoes through eternity not just because it captured the trauma of its time, but because it still speaks to a profound truth. In the current climate of conflict, it’s a truth worth revisiting.

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Reviewed 27/10/14/

By Marianka Swain

8th October – 8th November 2014
Orange Tree Theatre, London, TW9.

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