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Saving the sanity of poetic titans: Tim Delap as Siegfried Sassoon and Garmon Rhys as Wilfred Owen (credit: Manuel Harlan)

Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh between 1916 and 1919 was a place as expressive of the social and political conflicts of Europe as the Schatzalp sanitorium in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. The home of experimental psychology at a time when Freud's Interpretation of Dreams had only just been translated into English, it housed the shell-shocked, mentally and spiritually destroyed veterans of the trenches who in Pat Barker's masterful Regeneration are "a walking compendium of tics and twitches". Among them were some of the greatest names of 20th-century war poetry.

It is devilishly ambitious to attempt a stage version of Barker's novel, in which great and disturbed minds meet at the peak of the Great War, without reminding us of Hollywood's infamous attempt to conjure up Victorian London: "Hello, Mr Thackeray." "Good day to you, Mr Dickens."

Yet in this absorbing co-production of the Royal & Derngate and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company (James Dacre's first offering as a promising artistic director) we enter a world in which literary grandeur, opportunism and suffering coincide. Siegfried Sassoon (an effortlessly aloof Tim Delap) lounges on his single bed in a raspberry dressing-gown reading poetry during an internal exile engineered by his foxy friend Robert Graves (Christopher Brandon) — a ruse to save Sassoon from a court-martial over his noisy criticism of Britain's conduct of the war. Wilfred Owen (a convincingly nervy Garmon Rhys) seeks something more than friendship and advice from his aquiline mentor. He leaves unrequited but with an improved title for his "Anthem for Dead Youth" (Sassoon wisely recommended "doomed" instead). It is their last meeting before Owen's death at the front in the final days of the fighting.

The hardest portrayal to sustain among these poetic titans is the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers (Stephen Boxer), struggling with the paradoxes of saving men's sanity only to send them back to the front which has shattered them and will take the lives of many more of the country's most talented young men before the Armistice. Rivers is an evasive, shifting figure in the novel — and not wholly likeable. The compression of a two-hour play renders him as a more affable, almost breezy presence.

When I talked to Barker before the production, she suggested that the difficulty of putting her best-known work on stage would lie in reflecting that it was "a character in itself with different day and night-time identities". That aim is only partly achieved — a simple set underplays the crenellated interior of the old hydropathic hospital and its projection of absolute Victorian confidence. The contrast with the nightmares and breakdowns suffered by its patients is why Craiglockhart, like Mann's Davos, is more than just a period-piece location. At least the Derngate's vast vertical stage (those late-Victorian theatre designers did not worry much about energy costs) reflects the scale and grandeur of Rivers's humane, intelligent dealings with disturbed minds and tormented souls.
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