In case the plethora of predictably ham-fisted BBC documentaries and throwaway newspaper inserts somehow haven’t reached you, you should probably be aware that this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. And to mark the occasion, theatre companies nationwide have been producing shows that use the war as a central motif, either by directly placing events between 1914 and 1918, or by examining the social fallout that inevitably accompanies war.
Despite undeniably good intentions, however, the abundance of these, for want of a better word, ‘commemorative’ plays is beginning to threaten tedium. That war is a fundamentally thought-provoking topic is undeniable; one only has to think of the eternally arresting poetry of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. Yet the predictable, hackneyed nature of the themes that characterise the majority of these plays is similarly patent and, as a device, they seem altogether too obvious a route to the hearts of an audience.
Earlier this year, I saw An August Bank Holiday Lark at the Oxford Playhouse. Set in the fictional village of Greenmill, Deborah McAndrew’s play focuses on the idyllic country life of the early Twentieth Century and its slow demise as a result of the First World War. All the expected characters were present: two young lovers ripped apart by conscription, an elderly father bereft of his two sons, an eager young man deemed unfit for service. I enjoyed the play; it was well-scripted, well-directed and well-acted, but I was left with an immovable anxiety that I had not been as moved as I should have been.
For this, the blame can be partially laid at the door of the media. The bombardment of documentaries, dramas and discussions has rendered me somewhat unable to appreciate the tragedy. There is a genuine danger of desensitisation, of a collective dulling of our perception of the profundity of war through sheer familiarity with it. But this familiarity is also the fault of our theatres.
In the coming weeks, no less than four separate shows about WW1 are being performed in Oxford, including an adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, which arrives at the OP in 6th week. For the dramatist, war presents situations in which emotion is easily contrived: the loneliness of a young bride awaiting her husband’s return, the fear of a recruit heading to the front-line for the first time, the sorrow of a parent confronted with news of their fallen son. Yet, on stage, are these feelings as perennially profound as we are repeatedly told? “Moving”, “compassionate”, “poignant” boast the posters, but isn’t the proliferation of such productions the very antithesis of such claims? Can these productions, sharing similar themes, similar relationships, similar characters, all be emotionally stirring?
Quality does not always ensure such an outcome, as proved by An August Bank Holiday Lark, a commendable play, in most respects, that I enjoyed seeing but was not deeply moved by. The truth is that in such a climate of commemoration, it is originality that ensures a play has a strong emotional impact on the audience.
In June, I saw a dramatisation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, also at the OP. Yes, it is set in the time of the Second World War but the same, or similar, rules should apply. As a play, the lack of centrality, a fundamental component of the novel, ensures that the audience is never fully immersed. As an eyeglass into the harrowing trauma of conflict, however, its fervent unpredictability rendered it surprisingly touching.
It is the revelation of a new perspective on well-worn stories that truly engages an audience. It is the inclusion of an unusual character or an alternative opinion. These are devices that break fresh ground. They circumvent the prism of mass-media opinions, blow away the haze of familiarity and promote tangible insight into the tragedy. And they are much needed in First World War drama, lest we forget.