A THEATRE LEGEND RECREATED: AND RIPE FOR RE-EVALUATION
Sometime in the first hour, while far from unhappy, I realized that there are two things to keep in mind about Terry Johnson’s reprise of Joan Littlewood’s most famous production. One is that here in her theatre it is as much an act of reverence for Littlewood’s own centenary as for the Great War. The other is that it tells us as much about 1963 as about 1914-1918.
Its origins are well-known: at a time when World War II was fresh in memory and the Holocaust made it hard to criticize that fight, the radio producer Charles Chilton, whose father died at Arras the year he was born, made a documentary using half-forgotten soldiers’ songs interspersed with the history of the “pushes” and desperate strategies which left ten million dead and far more maimed. Littlewood, who hated officer-class accounts like RC Sheriff’s Journey’s End, adopted the material to tell the story, agitprop style, of working-class heroes sent to slaughter by posh callous generals, notably Haig. That class-war influence rolls on down the decades, in everything from Blackadder to the Michael Gove hissy-fit decrying it.
Littlewood framed it satirically as a Pierrot show, a beach entertainment with the cast doing sketches and songs, some with shocking flippancy, while guns and bombs thundered and newslines detailed the dreadful statistics of trench warfare, tens of thousands sacrificed for a few yards’ advance. Johnson reproduces it faithfully, with a slick and often superb cast of twelve as soldiers, citizens, nurses, officers, or war profiteers. Michael Simkins is notably good (he does a mean grizzled-officer these days, and sharp lightning changes of character). Caroline Quentin is tremendous as the music-hall singer urging men to the front (“On Friday night I’m willing / if you’ll only take the shilling / to make a man of any man of you!”), and leads the audience in Sister Susie sewing shirts for soldiers; she is stirring too as a Hyde Park peace campaigner in 1915.
And despite a rather annoying giant screen bobbing up and down too often, all the cast flow nimbly through the scenes from early triumphalism to repeated disasters. They stir some unforced emotion: the Christmas Truce is beautifully handled, and whenever there are rare snatches of diaries (“we hear the wounded crying from the woods..” ) or when the soldiers’ weary or cheeky songs rise, the sense of connection with a lost generation is overwhelming.
And that’s the problem, really. Our hunger now is for subtler understanding of the disaster: the strategic errors need, and are getting, a less simplistic perspective. What we need to remember is not one stroppy 1960’s death-of-deference point of view but simple facts and feelings. From The Wipers Times and War Horse, to contemporary diaries and poems and small significant discoveries like Southwark’s What the Women Did, we need to turn to the basic history, to work out our own beliefs and feel our own pity or rage. Not Littlewood’s, not even Chilton’s. It is worth seeing if only to come to that understanding.
box office 020 8534 0310 http://www.stratfordeast.com to 15 March