Theatre for Doomed Youth

An ambitious stage version of Pat Barker’s Regeneration helps us reflect on the Great War without hectoring

Theatre
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.

Those who admire Barker’s accounts of  his theories of regeneration of nervous systems will mourn that so much of the medical research that lends distinctiveness to the story has been cut away. The excisions mean that the self-conscious relationships between the men, rather than individual stories of spiritual and physical restitution, become the emotional heart of the play. The characters find themselves in a world of masculine hierarchy: a band of brothers stranded on the home front. Only Billy Prior, played with sublime northern stroppiness by Jack Monaghan, stands aside from the introspection, intent on “finding a girl”. The rest, as he points out, are “soft” on each other. Regeneration is on the road in a further ten  theatres across the country until late November, with a good sprinkling of dates across the country. It is the best kind of war commemoration for this year — the kind that entertains, helps us reflect and doesn’t hector.

Recent history in microcosm can be harder to stage than epoch-shaping events. The London riots of 2011 are an example of an event that perplexes and infuriates. They also offer a rich seam for Alecky Blythe, the most intrepid purveyor of “verbatim” theatre, based on recordings of actual speech, marshalled and edited by the playwright. The technique worked beautifully in London Road at the National, which told the story of an Ipswich community’s reaction to murders of prostitutes in 2006. In that play, the moral quandaries of strained affinities and a community dealing with the darkest side of human conduct, while trying to reassert the blessed quotidian values of street parties and hanging baskets, was finely wrought. Riots in Hackney are, admittedly, a tougher topic and Blythe put in the hours on the unquiet streets, dodging Molotov cocktails and following the community’s response.

In Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production, Little Revolution, the Almeida’s doors are flung open, so that the audience arrive in mid-mêlée. As a good-hearted, soft liberal, middle-class writer, Blythe is interested primarily in others like herself. Duly, there is a good bit of sending up the concerned Guardianistas, but nothing too upsetting to an Islington audience. Imogen Stubbs shines as the dippy but kind organiser of the community group, and Blythe’s ear for social nuance is acute. When the local worthies describe Saj, the victim of looting in his newsagent’s, they manage to put verbal inverted commas round the word “friend”, signalling class divides even solidarity groups cannot heal.

Ronni Ancona acts her Ugg boots off as a splendidly sanctimonious ultra-leftie mum who won’t take part in the community party in case a cupcake or two might ruin the purity of a Spartist campaign, snappily entitled “Stop criminalising Hackney youth”.

All this is observant and funny. But there is a laziness about the play which bothered me. Blythe, who plays herself as a nervous, people-pleasing interloper, does not penetrate far into the ethnic communities she depicts. We hear commentary from some believably dim Vicky Pollard girls watching chaos unfold on their estate, but barely anything from people connected to the participants, which leaves a pretty big hole in the action.

Even in the hands of such a skilful operator as Blythe, verbatim technique has limitations and they are displayed in Little Revolution. By the end, we were listening to the author delivering lines about why she was late in returning to a big social topic, because she had another project on in the meantime. Short of interviewing her accountant, things could not get less enlightening. Enough already.