CHRISTMAS 1914: A TRIBUTE, A MEMORY, MANY QUESTIONS
That supermarket ad gives a potted version of the 1914 Christmas ceasefire in no-man’s-land: British soldier gets parcel with chocolate, hears Stille Nacht from the German trenches; lads emerge nervously, shake hands, play football, Tommy gives his chocolate to Jerry, smiles with stiff upper lip. Some have raged at the sentimentality of it; some applauded. But what it can’t show is the more painful complexity of this poignant, troubling piece of history.
You can’t expect a chocolate ad to explore the emotional and philosophical cost of fraternizing with men you must shoot at on Boxing Day; or indeed mention that one of the important favours exchanged before any football was permission for both sides to collect and bury the bodies of friends and comrades , frozen in the mud or impaled on barbed wire. You can’t show that some on both sides must have held back, feared a trick, others found it hard to shake hands; or mention that alarmed orders from top brass brought the truces to a rapid end.
That complexity is approached, at least, in Phil Porter’s play, woven in with a slightly clichéd subplot about young nurses at the Front defying their strict Matron to put up improvised bandage-and-paper decorations. The main story is built around Captain Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwickshires, immortal cartoonist of “If you knows of a better ‘ole”. He was a participant and chronicler of the Truce and, appropriately, once a young electrician who wired the former Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. A fine exhibition remembers him upstairs.
So far, so good. Bairnsfather is played, delightfully and honestly, by Joseph Kloska; his whiskery sergeant Old Bill (looking exactly like the cartoons where he grumbles about the jam) is Gerard Horan. Around them a good cast josh in soldierly fashion, move – sometimes formally, sometimes naturally – play some nicely violent football (watch out, stalls and indeed circle), and narrate the realities of trench warfare in curiously bloodless calm antiphons. Some of the jokinging is good, and vividly soldierly, and Sam Kenyon’s songs and arrangements offer a real thrill of authenticity: could have done with more of them. But in the first half there is a curious slowness, a shrinking reluctance to come to the reality of war. Characters emerge, but slowly; even after the first death (Oliver Lynes in a lovely cameo as the hopeless Liggins – he returns in another great one as a disgruntled German) there persists a determined trombone jollity. Bairnsfather’s concert-party sketches are quite fun, but it all feels puzzlingly bland until you reflect that it is after all a Christmas family show, and part of its remit is to educate the new generation in the fact that its great-great grandfathers were just lads like them, thrown into a terrible machine of war. In those terms, it works. As drama, less so.
The second act, with some tremendous battle effects and the truce itself, is the best. From the cheeky notices on the British side (“Happy Christmas Fritz Have a Blinking Sossidge”) to the excursions over the top , the sharing and the games, it is truthfully and movingly done. Not least in a disgruntled conversation between Smith and Schmidt, who both think football is “scheiss” anyway and sympathize over disgusting food. And there’s a strikingly interesting diatribe from the German Kohler (Nick Haverson) explaining German paranoia on the grounds that as continentals they don’t have -as we do – the sea as a moat against neighbours.
But if there had been more to chew on, I suppose, it would be less of a Christmas family show. As such, it is an honourable addition to the year’s WW1 tributes, and a useful one for the 21st-century born: do take them.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
to March 2015