Thursday, 11 November 2010
We will remember them
That doesn't mean my critical faculties have been disabled but it does mean that the following account is my own specific take on the venture rather than an outsider view.
The book has many fans and, as I found out when I first told friends about the play, equally vociferous non-fans. I made a point of reading it before going to the première. So I knew what to expect. But somehow that did not protect me from the full force of the depiction of that "hell within a hell" that was the little-known World War One setting of the sappers in the tunnels in acts two and three.
At the end of the play, when the audience spontaneously rose to its feet, I couldn't join them. Not because I didn't agree with their assessment but because I was too distraught. I don't think I have ever shed tears in the theatre before, although I have, being a huge Shakespeare fan living within an hour's drive of Stratford, seen many tragedies.
But it was many minutes before I could recover my composure. What really got to me, in the scene where Stephen is rescued at the last minute by the German soldier and told the war is over, is that the two men embrace and say "Never again." (The soldier is a Jew). I just kept thinking, "Will no-one ever learn? Not only did it happen again, it's happening right now."
Some reviewers have liked the play better than others. Several made allusions to a television series that reminded me of the definition of a cultured person as "someone who can hear the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger." I would now change that to "someone who can see depictions of British soldiers going 'over the top" and a field of poppies without referencing Blackadder Goes Forth"!
I still don't know whether what I saw was a play. I wouldn't for example tell someone to read Rachel Wagstaff's playscript, good as it was, in preference to the novel. But I will say it was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I have ever had. And I thought of it again during the two-minute silence this morning. Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace and all the others are fictional characters but they helped me to remember men I never knew. And I shall not forget them.