THE COMMEMORATION Posted, 0100, 5/08/2014
“Terrible old uniforms, no proper webbing, even. Off to Destination Unknown” says the private soldier, remembering how he threw a postcard out of the train window in the hope it would reach his wife. “War was young, and so were we” says a sergeant, heady from the welcome at the liberation of Antwerp. An officer reminisces about making bombs out of jam tins to throw into enemy trenches: he enjoyed getting the stuff together because, as a public-school chap “I had never been shopping”. But the war that should have been over by Christmas never was. The memories darken: gas, foam in the lungs, drownings in foxholes, the longing for a good clean Blighty wound. And the ultimate horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, nightmare retreats, rats, mud, the strangely sweet smell of a thousand corpses all around.
Actors, low-key at lecterns, speak the words of the long dead to a silent packed hall, weaving the memories of 1914-18 into the awareness of our century. It is profoundly moving. It must be admitted that the national dimming of lights for the WW1 centenary was not apparent in much of Fringe Edinburgh, as the rock and racket of comedy, kebabs and queues carried on unabated through the evening. But walking through that to the Pleasance it was good to find the hour and day marked by a special performance of this understated 90-minute play by Malcolm McKay. Using the Imperial War Museum’s verbatim memories of the Great War, he brings them together as if in conversation between an officer, a private, a sergeant, a woman munitions worker with a husband at war. And, in the last twenty minutes, a joining American serviceman.
Here is the daily reality of war: soldiering satisfactions and grumbles, matter-of-fact horrors, the yellow skin of women in munitions factories, the purging of lice from shirt-seams over a candle flame, the trauma of an officer supervising a firing squad at dawn and losing faith in the public-school credo of being born to lead. Here too are memories of the beauty of the 1914 Christmas Truce: soldiers’ accounts of friendly fraternizing and football crossly, hopelessly denied by the officer. It feels true and terrible and rightly humble, the cast (including Julian Sands and Robert Vaughan) mere mouthpieces.
It is the woman, Kitty (Wendy Nottingham), who has the last word. Her husband was recruited, like so many other adventurous young men in those heady early days, his shoulder tapped at a Vesta Tilley concert where men took the King’s shilling on the music-hall stage. He didn’t come back.
It ended at midnight. Lights dim, lecterns gone, twelve chimes. And then the pipes of the Royal Scots Association Band: O Flower of Scotland. Then one by one the pipers left the light and marched into darkness. As thousands did a century ago, forever.
(Forgotten Voices is at the Grand – Pleasance Courtyard to 25 August daily at 1.30pm, excluding Tuesdays. Further guest artists appearing in the show after Julian Sands and Robert Vaughn, are Peter Bowles (6 – 13 August), Christopher Timothy (14 – 18 August), Robert Powell (14 and 15 August), James Fleet (20 – 25 August) and Celia Imrie (20 – 22 August).