Edinburgh Fringe 2009
One soldier experiencing joy, innocence, love, fear, bewilderment, frustration, anger and finally death. Powerful yet poignant tale of a 16 year old Tommy executed for perceived cowardice. Utterly compelling theatre.
The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. Wars are witness to an amalgam of selflessness, heroism, loyalty, comradeship, incompetence, cruelty and much more. Men and women, drawn together to fight for a common cause, each with a different level of understanding of what they are fighting for but each with a common goal – to defeat those branded as “the enemy”.
Private Peaceful is just one small pawn in this game, too young to have officially joined up but there all the same, doing his bit for King and country amidst the blood, the stench, the disease, the dead and the dying. Except that he’s about to be shot, not by the enemy for trying to be a hero, but by his own side for being found guilty of cowardice.
Private Peaceful was conceived in 2003, initially as a novel by prize-winning author Michael Morpurgo which was then subsequently adapted for the stage by Simon Reade. It tells the story of Private Peaceful’s short but eventful life ended by a firing squad for refusing to join a mission he regarded as futile. Some 300 Tommies lost their lives in similar circumstances, all of them suffering from what we now recognize as war related stress illnesses. Britain was not alone in treating its troops in this way but, at the time Private Peaceful was published, it was one of the last countries that was not actively considering or had actually pardoned those it had executed. This piece and Michael Morpurgo’s tireless campaigning were a factor in posthumous pardons being granted to British soldiers in 2006. And the author’s sense of injustice at the treatment of those accused of cowardice comes through strongly in a narrative full of innocence, joy, bewilderment, frustration, anger, tears and fear.
As his last night ticks away, Private Peaceful recounts the details of his short life. The vitriolic and abusive country squire that dominates his family, dependent as they are on the former for work; the early death of his father; his bond with Charlie, his elder brother; his humanity towards and care for Joe, a brother who is not quite all there; his love for Molly, unrequited; his mother, trying to protect her brood from the vicissitudes of Edwardian life.
War looms and, like many others, he takes the King’s shilling with his brother and their pals. He recalls the horrors of trench warfare in graphic detail but always with a sense of warmth and loyalty for his fellow fighters. Finally, exhausted and with nerves shattered after days of constant shelling and forays behind enemy lines, he stays with his wounded brother Charlie in defiance of an order to embark on yet another futile attack. The die is cast, he is tried and sentenced in under an hour and now awaits his execution.
Finn Hanlon excels as Private Peaceful, juxtaposing the joy and innocence of his rural upbringing with his bewilderment, fear, loathing and anger at what he is subsequently exposed to. His is a compelling tale which takes you through the gamut of emotions, particularly at the incompetence of his superiors, including those sitting in judgement of him. You also get a clear sense of how poorly equipped many of those asked to fight and die for their country were; little has changed after nearly a century, you might add.
The last known fighting Tommy, Harry Patch, passed away peacefully in July. He was, by all accounts, a man of great dignity and stoicism, yet he had no time for war – he felt it solved nothing. He was right, it doesn’t. But we still fight them and for all the wrong reasons. Theatre such as this should be made compulsory viewing for those responsible for committing people to war. Or we will never learn from history.