Back in 2014 theatres were falling over themselves to stage seasons built around 100 years from the start of the First World War, but the Finborough took a slightly different approach: Calling the strand THEGREATWAR100, they committed instead to revisiting the theme sporadically over the whole five years from the centenary of war breaking out, to the centenary of the Armistice. Which brings us very neatly to today and the concluding part of the series, and after a number of different approaches to the legacy of the trenches we get 1930s American Expressionism in Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead. That’s what the soldiers are trying to do at the start of the play, 48 hours after a failed advance left six of their friends dead, and they’re in a hurry to get on with it as the bodies are starting to smell. But while the men are indisputably dead they don’t act like it, rising from their graves and refusing to get back into them.
The play is short but divides neatly into two parts; the first half is a kind of black farce, as the army tries to figure out what to do with the uncooperative corpses.
The Generals keep sending the Captain (Guy Warren-Thomas) back to the front to deal with the dead, refusing to understand that as they have nothing to lose any more, they have no reason to follow orders. When the Generals do finally accept that there’s a problem, their main concern is about the PR issue the walking dead pose. Rafaella Marcus’ production has some odd doubling to contend with – at first only Keeran Blessie, Tom Larkin and Stuart Nunn are on stage representing the six risen dead, with Luke Dale, Liam Harkins and Scott Westwood only joining them as the other three once they’re done doubling other roles. It’s a clumsy way of getting around the huge cast the play would otherwise demand, but the surreal and dreamlike style helps the production get away with it.
This dreamlike quality extends to the war being fought – written just before the Second World War broke out, Shaw set the action in the coming conflict, but the trench warfare is very clearly inspired by the First, albeit possibly being fought on American soil. Designer Verity Johnson plays up on this vagueness and universality – the soldiers’ uniforms are generically twentieth-century with splashes of red illustrating where the fatal wounds were struck; but the dead soldiers also have a suggestion of suits of armour, linking the pointlessness of their deaths to that of many who’ve come before them. The second half of the play takes a different tack, and the dead finally get to make their case about why they refuse to lie down – they don’t accept that their lives were a suitable price to pay for the chance to advance a few feet – when they’re confronted by the women in their lives.
Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor get a chance to shine as all six of the wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers who try to convince their men to accept their fate, with Jones in a particularly moving scene as the mother of the youngest soldier (Nunn,) who keeps trying to stop her from seeing his mangled face. The better scenes in this section come towards the end, which is a shame as the six scenes largely outstay their welcome and by the time we get to the most moving sections the points have pretty much been made. Shaw’s theme is not an original one but the surreal way he takes it on certainly is, and while there’s much that’s repetitive in the play there’s also much that’s moving, making this a low-key but interesting conclusion to the Finborough’s commemorative programming.
Bury the Dead by Irwin Shaw is booking until the 24th of November at the Finborough Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander.