Edinburgh Fringe 2016
The moving true story of Nurse Edith Cavell, who helped British soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium in WWI.
It is quite a trudge from the centre of Edinburgh to Palmerston Place Church, but I’m glad I did so. It’s a beautiful, wide building with the impressive church organ behind the altar. The full house tonight mostly consists of a rather mature audience and a beautifully-behaved German Shepherd guide dog. The stage is set with an area for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Edward Grey, at one side. The back of the stage consists of a long sheet draped with many blood-soaked bandages. At the other end is a mountain of detritus indicating a Belgian battlefield hospital. A piano is hidden behind this. Throughout the show, however, like an ersatz crucifix, centre stage is occupied by a stake where we know Cavell will eventually meet her execution by the Germans for helping British soldiers to escape.
Director David Robinson is immediately engaging and thoroughly believable as Grey. He mostly speaks directly to the audience with great clarity and naturalism. He also bears a superficial resemblance to the man (as does Rebecca Rogers as Cavell, at least in her younger years). Cavell was running a hospital in Belgium when The Great War broke out, but soon found herself being asked to smuggle injured soliders out of the occupied area and back home to safety. She managed to save 200 lives this way.
Rogers as Cavell is outstanding (and word should go to her assistant Sister Wilkins, played by Alice Sylvester, who manages to not be outshone). I have rarely seen a performance so total in conviction; she has become Cavell. There is, perhaps, a romanticism in this as she is portrayed as young and saintly (Cavell was 49 at the time of her death) but it is a worthy tribute. Upright and bound by the mores of the era, she nevertheless exudes warmth and kindness and her inner struggles are frequent but always overcome.
Many of the scenes are linked by Josh Kennedy and Ollie Ward singing popular songs of the time at the piano. I do have a few points on this – dressed as they are, in modern white shirts, black trousers and formal ties, two young men immediately and overwhelmingly will look like they should be in ‘The Book Of Mormon’. Josh’s playing is perfectly good but there is one time when he mimes and the sound is entirely coming out of a single speaker on the other side of the stage (a problem with all the sound effects and recorded music). I would also like the boys to harmonise with each other, acting as soldiers rather than a modern performance. Their voices are fine and it seems a wasted opportunity. I was also uncomfortable with the one attempt at an audience sing-along. It didn’t feel right with the gravity of the subject matter although it was by no means disrespectful. Some of these songs would have been perfectly acceptable sung quietly under a few of the monologues rather than a linking device between scenes.
We are given a choice example of how Cavell saved the life of one soldier, Harry Beaumont, and how they attempted to stay in touch. There is a slight awkwardness in that when they part, and Beaumont is led to safety, they discuss confidential intricacies of the operation whilst standing some distance apart. This really needed to be done at a different time or with much greater awareness of the danger they were in. It would also have been nice to have been given more of a suggestion of the 200 lives she saved, rather than just using a single case.
There is one matter I really need to comment upon. The show is billed as 90 minutes. After 35 minutes, there was an interval and everyone had to vacate the performance area so it could be reset. When we came back in, nothing appeared to have changed. At a Fringe Festival, playing this show straight through with its actual running time of about 70 minutes would have been a much better decision.
In the second half of the play, we witness things fall apart for Cavell. The Germans discover she has been helping the Allies escape, and bring her in for questioning. She stays totally honest and finds herself imprisoned and eventually sentenced to death for doing so. The fact she had helped German soldiers too (being with the impartial Red Cross) seemed to make no difference to her captors. As her interrogators, Ward and Kennedy play with honesty. They are cold and sinister but not inhuman. Her words are twisted and exaggerated to make it sound like a confession to Treason. It seems pretty clear where things are headed.
Back in London, Edward Grey has a huge dilemma. If the Germans execute Cavell, he will have a huge influx of men rushing to join up to avenge her death. These thoughts are dispelled almost immediately but it is already too late to save her. Visits were refused and her only company was the Rev Gahan. Simon Rodda is mesmerising in this role. Like Robinson, he is entirely naturalistic and his awkwardness because of his lack of anything helpful to say is palpable. Cavell’s scene with him is very moving as she remains strong and resolute. Sister Wilkins’ reading of Cavell’s last letter brings tears to the eyes as she mentions such everyday things as looking after her dog.
I felt uncomfortable with the execution scene. I didn’t want to see it. Rogers deals with it in a very restrained and non-graphic way when the moment comes but we didn’t need to see blood. Her subtlety conveyed exactly what had happened.
The pulpit is used to recreate the sermon given by Gahan at Cavell’s funeral held at Norwich Cathedral. It is spine-chilling. You are taken back in time and you feel you are right there. When the cast come together to sing ‘Abide With Me’ at the end, it is heartbreaking.
Searchlight are a Christian company, and so there is slightly more emphasis on Cavell’s beliefs than you might expect but, for a secular reviewer, this does not intrude into the telling nor is it didactic. Cavell was a martyr. She is expertly portrayed in this piece of work.