From the moment I saw the backdrop, I knew I was going to enjoy this play. I was looking at a dirty sky, filled with words: ‘love’, ‘helpless’, ‘dreams’, ‘dead’, ‘snatch’, ‘love’, ‘helpless’, ‘dreams’, ‘dead’, ‘mind’, ‘men’, ‘ravished’, ‘memory, ‘murder’, ‘dark’, ‘battle storms’, ‘flesh’, ‘watch’, ‘witness’, ‘wander’, ‘always’, ‘laughter’, ‘blood’, ‘hum’, ‘triumph’, ‘I know’, ‘to guide’, ‘always’, ‘their hatred’, ‘all the while’, ‘must see’, ‘their helpless’, ‘witnessed’, ‘lungs’- the words drifted above a line of bayonets rising from the trench across the bottom. This backdrop pulls one instantly into the world of the play, for Not About Heroes is as much about words as it is about war.
The story is simple: two poets, Siegfried Sassoon, already published, well connected and well known, and his young admirer, Wilfred Owen, son of a railway man, meet at Craiglockart War Hospital during the First World War and a bond is forged. Despite a shared English reserve, shyness, and awkwardness, they move to a deeper union through their shared unique (and un-English) passion, sensitivity and commitment to poetry.
The play is firmly about poets and poetry – the writing of it, the craft of it which formed the bond between them as poets. It is also about men trying to deal with the subject of war in their lives and work.
At first the men read their poems as well as letters from the front to relatives, plus Parliamentary speeches and newspaper articles but as the play continued, the dialogue and the poetry blended together in the men’s voices until the play was virtually seamless, as it should be; poetry was who these people were and what the most profound part of their lives was about. The author fully understands that and allows the statement to be made by the play itself.
There is a lovely and telling scene when Sassoon picks over a poem by Owen. He starts with a small word (not ‘those who will die’ but ‘those who are dead’) and gradually makes more ‘suggestions’ which move from small words to more intense questions of rhythm and accuracy and totally reshape the poem, which is, of course, about war and death.
Simon Jenkins as Owen was brilliant in his ambivalent reactions to Sassoon’s critique, ego struggling with acceptance of the truth and his reluctant acknowledgement that Sassoon was right. When Sassoon said ‘The last line (long pause) is perfect,’ I, for one, felt as Owen must have done – a huge sigh of relief and a desire to shout – Hurrah!
Why did Owen return to the front after such a devastating emotional experience in the trenches? Sassoon cannot understand why, feeling a he does about war, which caused his hospitalisation. Owen says later that war is his subject and the reason he has to return to the hell of no man’s land – where he acquitted himself courageously – and wrote his great poems. In this play, it was clear that he was so committed to his subject that he literally died for it, one week before the Armistice. ‘You are too young to sleep forever’ Sassoon writes, ‘ but you taught me to carry compassion and love out of our bitter memories’.
There is some delightful humour in the play as well:
‘Robert Graves is a man one likes better after he has left the room’ someone says , and ‘We tell each other nothing but truth’ says Owen. ‘Yes’ Sassoon agrees ‘Owen: Golf is a boring game.’
The production is excellent – deceptively simple and subtly atmospheric. Alasdair Craig as Siegfried Sassoon is completely believable according to everything I have read of him. I never met Mr Sassoon personally of course, but after seeing this play, I believe that I have. As for Simon Jenkins as Owen, he is touching, funny, and likeable, with the gift of suggesting a rich subtext beneath everything he says. I loved the way he held Sassoon’s golf clubs,with bewilderment and reverence, as if they were exotic and mysterious religious objects. I was particularly impressed with his physical behaviour – how the disturbance that sent him shaking and stammering to Craiglockart in the first place eased off and then from time to time, came back, in lesser intensity, at unexpected moments. Not About Heroes is one of Mr Jenkins’ first professional appearances. His skill is already impressive and I look forward to watching this very gifted actor develop.
Not About Heroes is demanding and one has to pay attention; I can’t remember when I have enjoyed paying attention so much.
Review by Kate Beswick
Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald
Directed by Caroline Clegg
Designed by Lara Booth
Produced by Feelgood Company
Cast: Simon Jenkins, Alasdair Craig
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for 11 years and above.
Show Opened: 10th November 2014
Booking Until: 6th December 2014