As the Great War passes beyond living memory through Not About Heroes presented by Blackeyed Theatre at the Cornerstone this week, the audience were able to glimpse the realities of this conflict and gain insight into the experiences of the many who fought and died on the fields of Flanders. The play was well attended by a wide age-range and proved so enthralling that even the teenage school party was attentive and, from what I overheard during the intermission, moved by the experience.
James Howard and Ben Ashton brought two of those casualties of war, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, to life, illuminating their complex characters, emotions and relationship, through which the audience were able to gain understanding of their experience of the First World War and the thought processes underpinning their iconic poetry. The play must be a difficult acting challenge, as the protagonists are on stage for the whole of the drama and have to portray many complexities such as their relationship, the war and their lyrical inspiration, which they rose to convincingly.
This was an intense, stark and introspective theatrical experience, as the play illustrated the growing friendship of the protagonists and the pain and pleasure this brought to each as serving and invalided soldiers. The intensity of the language was complemented by the minimalist set, with its shadowy presences and dramatic film back-drop. I particularly liked the use of many piles of books as props and interestingly these brought some of the only notes of colour to the set. Also, Tom Neill's piano score lent great poignancy to pivotal scenes.
The overall effect was to make immediate and intimate this distant conflict. Throughout the play, we saw the striking differences between the characters of Sassoon and Owen. Initially, Sassoon appeared confident, almost arrogant, in contrast to Owen's shell-shocked diffidence. Later in the play, after Sassoon has again been injured at the front and Owen is blossoming as a poet, the roles reverse as Owen's confidence grows in parallel to Sassoon's doubts. I also found their discussions of their reasons to fight, and particularly Owen's need to return to the front, enlightening. This play showed great perception of the motivation, emotion and trepidation experienced by Owen and Sassoon during this war, and by the end of the play I had a much greater understanding of “the hell where youth and laughter go”.