Love's Labour's Lost and Won take us either side of the war, Phil Porter's The Christmas Truce puts us in the thick of it. Part of the inspiration was a local Stratford celebrity other than the usual one: Bruce Bairnsfather was an electrician who helped set up the electrics of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and lit some early productions. But once war broke out he became famous for a different talent, as the comic cartoons he submitted to magazines became hugely popular. He was considered such a morale-booster that once injured he wasn't allowed to return to the front, so he could keep the nation's spirits up writing full-time. But before that he was also present at an event at Christmas 1914 that would become legendary.
The play opens at a peaceful country fête, but soon Bruce (Joseph Kloska) is volunteering for the front along with other army reserves. The include the hapless Liggins (Oliver Lynes,) who's so obviously doomed he could be wearing a red Star Trek jumper.
Alongside the story of Bruce and his Royal Warwickshire Regiment, we also see something of women at war, as nurse Phoebe (Frances McNamee, who also turns out to have quite an "Ave Maria" in her) joins a field hospital, her own attempts to keep everyone's spirits up and provide a personal touch quickly clashing with a by-the-book Matron (Leah Whitaker.) So we get a look at both trench and hospital life in the first few months of the war, culminating in both armies defying their superiors to cease fire over the Christmas period, exchange gifts and bury their dead.
It's quite a bold move to take such a serious issue as the basis for a festive family show, but The Christmas Truce is more successful than it's even aiming to be: The age recommendation is 9+, which today seemed to be being happily ignored by all parents. Lots of children much younger than that were in the audience, but apart from a bit of joining in with the Christmas carols there was a remarkable level of quiet and careful concentration going on. I don't know if kids watch Blackadder any more so it's important they get an idea of this piece of history from somewhere, and this sensitive portrayal of events doesn't shy away from the pointlessness of the waste of life.
For obvious reasons The Christmas Truce is stacked more towards the soldiers' morale-boosting fun rather than the horrors, but it doesn't shy away from the deaths, which Erica Whyman's production comes up with a simple but moving conceit to represent. Apart from an expressionistic row of (later blasted) trees at the back, Tom Piper's design is largely built out of wooden chairs and ladders, and I also liked the subtle way the armies switched position on stage as the lack of real difference between the sides becomes clearer.
Although the famous football match does of course get recreated (complete with anachronistic jokes about Germans and penalties) the main focus on the truce itself is on the burying of bodies and the bonding between men who know they'll be back to trying to kill each other tomorrow. Despite what must be, or at least feels like, several dozen WWI plays this year, The Christmas Truce did manage to make me tear up in these scenes.
The Christmas Truce by Phil Porter is booking in repertory until the 31st of January at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. A free exhibition on Bruce Bairnsfather runs at the PACCAR Room until the 15th of March.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.