I’m sure it’s no coincidence that in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, Feelgood Theatre Productions’ Not About Heroes ends it tour a stone’s throw away from the Whitehall Cenotaph. The title of the play is a quote from the foreword of Wilfred Owen’s first published collection of work and the narrative charters the friendship between Siegfried Sassoon and Owen, his poet protégée, during and after their convalescence at Craiglockhart War Hosptial for Nervous Disorders.
The longevity of the play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1982, is testament to MacDonald’s writing as much as it is to a continued interest in these two iconic English poets or reverence for the Great War. The dialogue moves with ease from the recognizable patter between friends to sharply eloquent reflection. It also cleverly manages to avoid awkwardness or sentimentally in the frequent poetry recitals, the text seeming to call for it in the same way that a musical desires its characters to break into song. Listening to the poetry delivered in its imagined context revives the poems’ bruised splendour.
MacDonald also treats the historic relationship with sensitively, neither shying away from undertones of a love beyond friendship nor maneuvering the narrative towards it. And there are delightful comic devices which offer some relief from the heavy backdrop of the war, particularly in Sassoon breaking Owen’s fourth wall by interrupting the latter’s spoken letters to his mother.
Not only are Jenkins and Craig well cast and costumed for their physical resemblance to the poets, they carry the work with a genuine chemistry. Jenkins has perfected, without overplaying, the soldier-poet’s shell-shocked stutter and his interpretation of Owen’s journey between states of anxiety and determined conviction is done with beautiful subtlety. Alasdair Craig is warmly arrogant as Sassoon and has a commanding presence both looking back as the narrator and in his seniority over Owen. The scene where he helps edit a draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is played with an understated humour, helping to sharpen the poignancy of the words when they are finally read. Clegg’s spatial direction compliments the rich text in its simplicity, and a stand out choice is the imaginary corridor Owen repeatedly walks down to demark his room from Sassoon’s.
Although some of the production values could be raised to the level of the performances, in particular the cardboard ‘tin’ hats decorating the auditorium, this is a gem of a show and certainly for anyone who loves listening to well executed speech and verse. Not About Heroes helps us to remember these extraordinary characters’ in their very human humanity and asks us neither to glorify them nor the subject of war.