On 11th April 1918 the Western Front was in the throes of the series of German Spring offensives designed to smash through the Allied line, reach the coast and win the war. The very next day marked one of the most serious setbacks for the Allies as they were everywhere forced to give ground, leading Field-Marshal Haig to issue his famous "Backs to the Wall" Order of the Day to the British Army in France. Meanwhile, 100 years later, in the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, a first-night audience was watching A More Perfect World by local playwright Tony Green. A centenary TV documentary on World War I is interviewing a history professor. We zoom to 1978 where three WWI veterans - a private, a colonel and a nursing volunteer - are being quizzed about their war experience. As they talk, a flashback-within-the-flashback takes us across the Channel to the scene of their service in France.
The postscript plea from Professor York that people should "read the books and do their own thinking" seemed to encapsulate Mr Green's theme about the importance of declining to accept the news media's facile acceptance of myth and stereotype; and particularly the notion of regarding those who fought in that war as little more than victims. Well yes, but do any more than a minority believe everything they read in newspapers and see on TV? I don't know that contemporary opinion does necessarily bestow little but victimhood on the participants in this conflict. Nevertheless this is a timely warning from the playwright that we should not accept stereotypes at face value.
Designer Michael Ward has come up with quite a clever idea of switching from the a trench and its firestep to a field hospital by means of hollow, white-painted units to the sides and rear of the stage which swing open to reveal the hospital interior complete with bed. Director Maria Crocker has managed to extend the playing space by squeezing in a little interview area at front right for the interviews. The stage was also given nice depth and resonance by backcloth projection depicting now several versions of a bombed-out wilderness towards the German lines, notably a scene of cloying mud and water-filled shell holes, then in succession a trench map, a moonlit night, and a swathe of artillery smoke. This said, the Unicorn stage is fairly diminutive in the first place, and since the constructed set takes away space on three sides, what remains for the playing space is pretty cramped, permitting limited scope for movement.
The writer and director have also had to confront the problem of how to convey knowledge about the conflict and its characters. To achieve this in a natural, flowing manner through the dialogue is a difficult test for any playwright, and it's not surprising that Mr Green has opted for rather a didactic approach, with his actors called upon to pass on to us what amount to blocks of information in little set speeches. Given that the opening, 2018-set scene and its successors comprise what amounts to a lecture by Professor York, there's a little bit of a static feel to the proceedings, where characters, e.g. Colonel Mead and the young Rennett-Chalmers, and then the two nurses, tended to stand and deliver. I did, however, enjoy the welcome and interesting use of rhyming couplets in the mouths of several players at moments of heightened stress.
Some flashes of humour also relieved what could have been a fairly sombre picture, necessarily so given the subject matter. There was a loud laugh for rather posh Volunteer Nurse Copperington-Cook (Lucy Wilton) describing her boyfriend as "tall and handsome and incredibly funny; I just want to bite him", and the surprisingly upbeat Corporal Bramley, excellently played by the voluble, ebullient Kieran Piggott with his "Are we downhearted?" refrain, was a constant source of chirpy realism. He and Duncan Blagrove as an unnamed Aussie soldier, injecting energy in his brief appearance, got the play's second half off to a bustling start.
Others among the cast to catch my eye were the two old soldiers, Private Wil Fowler and Colonel Rennett-Chalmers, played respectively by Keith Hales and Jon Crowley. The former, looking back on his war years, says: "First we were heroes...then old men, then we were victims". Mr Crowley managed subtly to indicate that under his unassuming manner there lurked angst and pain, telling us his strategy of coping with his memories of the War is: "Best forget or keep it to yourself until you can't really remember." Dave Cassar's Colonel Mead conveyed much of the strain of command, especially in a painful court martial, and Tracy Hughes was a sympathetic 1978 production assistant.