“‘Anthem for Dead Youth’”
By 1917, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’s designation in army speak is ‘Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous),’ which then becomes ‘Shell Shock (wound)’ or ‘Shell Shock (sick)’. You could suffer both. Either way, it was identified as a ‘disability … caused by military service’. Watch this eager, opportune, play and you can add ‘unspeakable,’ ‘crippling’ or ‘shocking’ to the official terms.
Furthermore, pull open one of the gun metal drawers in the War Poets Collection at Craiglockhart and you’ll see an open medical register with ‘Neurasthenia’ entered alongside every one of the thirty plus names down the page. The ledger is matter-of-fact, inoffensive, prosaic for its time. However, writer Pat Barker turned that upside down in the terrific pages of ‘Regeneration,’ and Gillies MacKinnon took that book and made an excellent film of it. Now, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation tries it out on stage, with Simon Godwin directing and aiming high.
It is a fascinating, half-true story. Mutinous ‘Mad Jack’ Siegfried Sassoon (31) did meet Wilfred Owen (24) in Craiglockhart hospital during the summer of 1917. Sassoon did encourage Owen to write about the war. His pencilled revisions are all over a draft of ‘Anthem for Dead Youth’, along the lines of “No, make that… Doomed Youth’. Good man!” Sassoon’s doctor was William Rivers, anthropologist and pioneering psychiatrist. Owen recovers his health, Sassoon accepts counseling. Both officers choose to be ‘discharged to duty’. Both will return to the front line.
Rivers also has another patient, Billy Prior, a boy from Bradford who knows all too well that he’s only made it to 2nd Lieutenant because the army is fast running out of the privately educated, well spoken type. The exchanges between Rivers – in a fine undemonstrative performance by Stephen Boxer – and the chippy but likeable Prior (Jack Monaghan) are the most forward and challenging in the play. Questions of class, upbringing and sex are insistently between them.
However, the relationship is less spiky between Owen and Sassoon. Garmon Rhys plays the younger man, gauche and pliable, who gains confidence and dignity by the close. Tim Delap is a debonair Sassoon, who has his own terrors in the night but whose brocade dressing gown stands them down. Between the two of them, the love that dare not speak it’s name gets treacherously close.
This production is ambitious, brisk, and inventive, but its pace reinforces an episodic, fleeting quality. Reflective moments – Rivers dictating case notes, Mr Prior under hypnosis – are precious, but soon give way to the next happening. A burst of machine gun fire or a flash of howitzer blast are like fugitive subtitles, and the compressed script begins to sound sententious, light remarks diverting attention from tough themes. The stark set is washed out, bleached almost, and in need of some gloomy Edwardian mahogany. Additionally, the small marble of Laocoön on Rivers’ desk is a weighty feature that does its job, but otherwise, the fact that the Conservative Club on Princes Street, where Sassoon entertained, is now a Debenhams is indicative of a play piling literary stock and selling low. ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ it cannot be, although Capt. Rivers remains a merciful saint.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 30 September)
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