Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Theatre review: Not About Heroes

As 2014 nears its end so does the series of shows commemorating the First World War's centenary, but there's still a couple to go. Stephen MacDonald's 1983 play Not About Heroes seems to have had a couple of rival productions touring this year, and the one that's made it to London and Trafalgar 2 is the inappropriately-named Feelgood Theatre production. Based largely on the letters of the two best-known war poets Siegfried Sassoon (Alasdair Craig) and Wilfred Owen (Simon Jenkins,) it charts the friendship and professional relationship that developed while they were both at a mental hospital in Edinburgh. The then-unknown Owen was there for shell-shock, the already-famous Sassoon suspects he's there largely to be kept out of the way: His early jingoistic verse has been replaced by a much more realistic and critical view of the war, that goes against the official script.

Having long admired Sassoon, the stuttering Owen is initially nervous to meet him, but is soon showing him his own poetry. Although his new mentor is quick to find fault in the younger man's work at first, he gradually starts to believe Owen has surpassed him in talent, and introduces him to a number of useful contacts who can get his poems published. They were, but Owen didn't live to see it.

MacDonald's play does a pretty good job of weaving together poems and letters to form a narrative of the two men's relationship. My O'Level English exam included a few Wilfred Owen poems so some of the more famous ones that get recited here were familiar; but having probably been too young to really appreciate them at the time, as well as seeing them in context now, made them seem more effective. The play draws out its simple story a bit too long though, and while it hints at a homoerotic edge to the relationship it frustratingly shies away from really exploring it. This may be part of the reason the short-lived friendship never really has an emotional impact in Caroline Clegg's functional production. There's been better WWI plays this year, but it's interesting that it's taken this long to have a look at this most famous artistic response to it.

Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald is booking until the 6th of December at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

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