Brighton Fringe 2016
How do you even begin to show the horror and sacrifice of the First World War?
In these centenary years there have been many attempts at dramatic portrayals of those events, but the difficulties of recreating the Western Front on a theatre stage often leave them looking about as convincing as a school Nativity Play.
The problem isn’t just realism – some subjects are just too painful, too far removed from our modern experience, to be faced head-on. They need to be approached obliquely, and at a safe distance.
That’s what Ross Ericson has done with ‘The Unknown Soldier’, which he both wrote and performs. All we see on the stage at The Dukebox is the inside of a room in Jack Vaughn’s billet in France. There’s just enough space for a camp bed, a travelling trunk and a stove, and a couple of chairs. Nothing else – just the black back of the stage, and the sound of rain, continually falling outside.
Jack’s a Sergeant in the British Army – we see his stripes when he takes off his rain cape and starts talking to us. Well, talking to his mate Tom, actually. It’s a one-man show, so Tom must be sitting somewhere in the room and Jack talks to him throughout.
Jack’s not a youngster, he’s a big Devon man in his early forties, a veteran, and he’s volunteered to stay on after the end of the fighting two years ago, to collect bodies for identification and burial. There are thousands out on the old battlefields, lying in shell holes or buried in makeshift graves, and the authorities want them interred in proper military cemeteries.
See how cleverly Ross Ericson has written this play. We’ve all seen photographs of Tommies in the trenches, or going ‘over the top’, and other pictures of the immaculate war cemeteries – row upon row of crisp white stones. Jack, though, takes us very close to the stink of rotting bodies – “The worst ones were those that had been lying in a water-filled shell hole. Big bloated things they was, and they’d come apart on you when you tried to lift them up, just like wet paper”.
That was two years ago; these days – “we’ll be lucky to put a name to half of them. It’s rare they still have their identity discs, and if they do we have to search amongst their very bodies to find them”. Almost unimaginable horror, but the sergeant relates it calmly while sitting rolling a cigarette, and so we can bear to listen – we’re at a safe distance.
Later the author employs the same kind of technique for trench warfare itself. We don’t see some dramatisation – we just see Jack, rearing up from his bed in the middle of a nightmare, bathed in red light, acting out his memories.
An incredibly loud soundtrack surrounds us with an artillery barrage, very close, and Jack throws himself against the bed, hiding from the shellfire. Then it’s the attack and he’s sleepwalking the action – using his rifle, aiming and shooting again and again until the Germans burst into the trench and he has to use his bayonet to defend himself. Finally that’s lost, and he’s flailing around with a trench spade, slicing into heads and arms …
At the blackout that closes the scene, we realise how badly Jack is shell-shocked. He’ll probably have these nightmares for the rest of his life.
Ross Ericson wants us to experience the Great War, but he also wants us to understand the aftermath. How, after all their suffering and sacrifice, the soldiers returning to Britain never got their ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ that they had been promised by Lloyd George. Many of the pre-war injustices and inequalities not only remained but got worse, and although the dead were remembered with monuments; the living, and especially the mutilated, were forgotten.
“The only land they gives to heroes is six foot down. Bugger the living. Don’t for God’s sakes come back alive, ’cause we don’t want to see your ugly stumps and your ugly scars, we don’t want to hear your midnight screams and tales of hell”.
War memorials for the dead – poverty, unemployment and broken lives for many of the living. He tells us of riots in Luton in 1919, when war veterans burned the Town Hall in protest at victory celebrations that included only the town ‘worthies’ and excluded the fighting men themselves. Google it – I did.
So the central theme of ‘The Unknown Soldier’ is that the authorities want to take the body of an unidentified soldier back to Britain, to be entombed in Westminster Abbey as a symbol of the heroism and honour. The French will do the same thing, at The Pantheon in Paris on Armistice Day.
Jack hates the whole concept, thinks it’s a hollow gesture, a politician’s trick. But he’s ordered to find a body, exhume it, and transport it to the coast for shipment to England. To find out how he did that, and how all this also involves his mate Tom, you’ll have to see the play for yourselves.
You won’t be disappointed. Ericson is an outstanding actor – Sergeant Jack Vaughn was a very believable portrayal. He filled the Dukebox space with his powerful presence and a rich West Country voice, and the writing also dropped in enough details about his family and his Devon background to make the character a completely rounded creation. Michelle Yim’s sensitive direction brought out every nuance of the piece.
And Ross Ericson himself is a radical champion of the rights of working people. The playscript was on sale and I bought a copy – I wanted to look deeper at this production. As part of his reason for writing ‘The Unknown Soldier’, he writes in the introduction –
“I hope once you have read it and you see our current out-of-touch elite standing at the Cenotaph with their poppies in their lapels, and you hear their talk of patriotism and sacrifice and their empty promises of honouring the dead, you will understand why I thought it necessary to write one more play about the First World War”.