Pros: Irvin Shaw’s 1936 expressionist play about the futility of war is brilliantly brought to life by director Rafaella Marcus.
Cons: This excellent staging does its best with a slightly uneven work, though the last third feels very much of its time.
There’s always a lovely sense of expectation, going up the stairs to the Finborough Theatre. While the pub has recently been modernised and lost its old school atmosphere, the theatre remains unchanged and is as evocative as ever. On this occasion, the set is striking, sparse yet intriguing. With the stage in the middle of the theatre and the seating either side, the boundary between audience and performers is slightly blurred, marked by soil. It’s wartime, and there are bodies to be buried.
What appears to be an earthy trench turns out to be a communal grave. Shaw’s interwar play starts with a jolt. Here are bodies who refuse to be buried. They are dead men alright, but they refuse to lie under six feet of soil and give up on the world. They still have a life to live, they say. They stand firm, in white shirts bearing vivid red embroidery, a symbol of their wounds. At a loss, when entreaties from their officers and clergy fail, their superiors send in wives, sisters, mothers. Sleep, the women tell them, lie down, why don’t you accept you are dead?
The direction is well conceived, and the way in which the actors play multiple roles is highly effective and absorbing. Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor in particular add a sense of deep conviction to the story, in both male and female roles, and their performances are a pleasure to watch. It is curious that they were not cast as part of the rebellious dead, but only as the characters around them. Doing so would have added an additional dimension to a play which in some ways feels dated.
The play feels of its time because it is anchored in an experience of war which was changed radically since WWI, with civilians now inevitably among frontline casualties, and women and children equally affected. While the first world war might have appeared futile, there are very few wars where that can now be convincingly argued. The play also feels dated because of its portrayal of women. As the story develops into a series of dialogues between dead man and wife, mother, sister, most of the women are of the same mind: they think their loved one should accept his death. They are presented as the face of conformity, conservatism and a certain selfishness. They are adversaries, not allies. There is one partial exception, in a beautifully performed dialogue between Sioned Jones and Scott Westwood, where their disappointments in life are transcended in death, and bitterness becomes something sweet, if sad.
Verity Johnson’s set and costume design add to Rafaella Marcus’s perceptive and precise direction and to the pleasure of the performances. The red embroidery on the dead men’s shirts might seem like a detail but it is a sharply poignant reminder of heartbreak, while the earthy set creates both a strong sense of shifting moods and a dynamic space for the story to unfold.
Author: Irving Shaw
Director: Rafaella Marcus
Box Office: 01223 357 851
Booking Link: https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions.php
Booking Until: 24 November 2018