Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Theatre review: For King and Country

A First World War scandal that still resonates is the treatment of British deserters, hundreds of whom were executed for cowardice after incidents of what we would now identify as PTSD, and who were only formally pardoned as recently as 2006. So John Wilson’s 1964 hit, which was later filmed, would seem a play that could still hit a nerve today, but unfortunately Paul Tomlinson’s production almost seems to go out of its way to demonstrate why For King and Country has lain neglected for the last 30 years. Private Hamp (Adam Lawrence) has been caught casually trying to leave the Western Front and been brought in front of a Court Martial. One of the few surviving members of his platoon after four years in the trenches, getting trapped in a bomb crater for several hours triggered a sudden change in behaviour, and with Shell Shock starting to be recognised as a real thing, Lieutenant Hargreaves (Lloyd Everitt) thinks he’s spotted a real instance of it.

Hargreaves volunteers to defend him at Court Martial, but even with the President of the Court (Peter Ellis) just about open to being convinced, the charmless Hamp is his own worst enemy and unable to give the court a reason to sympathise.

Or the audience, as it turns out. The early scenes see Hargreaves strategize how best to put across the fact that Hamp’s desertion was atypical behaviour caused by his recent experiences, but Lieutenant Midgley (Fergal Cochlan,) prosecuting, argues that accepting his plea of shell-shock opens the door for everyone else to desert. The trouble is nobody (surviving) seems to have had much idea what Hamp was like before, and so the fact that he’s inarticulate and disengaged now doesn’t really prove anything’s changed. In addition to the combination of Hamp’s shell-shocked personality and Lawrence’s soporific voice, the slow pace of the speech-heavy scenes makes for a lack of energy that the occasional diversions to the trenches can’t hope to lift.

The second act is something of an improvement, as the inevitability of Hamp’s fate seems to have sunk in to everyone but him, and Lieutenant Webb (Henry Profitt,) likely to find himself on the firing squad, and the Padre (Eugene Simon,) opposed to the death penalty regardless of guilt, help Hargreaves try to prepare Hamp. Probably the most interesting aspect for me, assuming it’s inspired by real-life cases, was the fact that the men drug Hamp so he doesn’t have to know what’s happening as he goes to meet the firing squad. But given the subject matter it really should be easy to get the audience to engage; For King and Country falls so far short of this I wasn’t that surprised to see that, while the characters were waiting to hear if one of them was going to live or die, a woman across the stage from me was doing a crossword.

For King and Country by John Wilson is booking until the 21st of July at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner.

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