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Our Friends, The Enemy, Theatre 503

Alex Gwyther
Directed by Tom O’Brien


Pros: A strong performance and script from Gwyther, even-handed direction from O’Brien, and a timeless, deeply human message.

Cons: The diffusion of narrative focus devalues the stories of the two characters who underpin the text; several passages come close to being a cliché and the mild allusions to the architects of war might have carried more venom.

Our Verdict: A combative one-man piece with a lot to offer.

Our Friends, The Enemy enjoyed a successful run at the New Wimbledon theatre in February. This

Courtesy of Theatre 503

performance at Theatre 503 in Battersea is a warm-up (though the auditorium certainly wasn’t chilly) for a hefty stint at Edinburgh this August. Judging by what I saw last night, this intelligently woven, poetic one hander about the Christmas truce of 1914 will have no trouble earning a name for itself up in Scotland, despite the avalanche of competition.

Why? Well, Gwyther’s performance certainly has something to do with it. Taking on the narrator-role of Private James Boyce, Gwyther’s performance of his own script (which started life as an epic poem), walks a nice path between histrionic and understated, managing to be credible, poignant and arresting. Some of the references that Boyce has to make to particular battalions or regiments are veritable tongue-twisters; and great hunks of the text are very lyrical (alliteration abounds). This requires very skillful and precise enunciation, which Gwyther manages with soldierly aplomb. 

Tom O’Brien’s direction sends Private Boyce around the stage a reasonable amount without over-doing it – we get a sense of both the stillness and chaos of warfare and a host of characters are conveyed by Boyce without the whole thing seeming forced. Indeed, Gwyther is rather nimble in switching between a member of the German infantry who is about to get shot to a cock-sure Tommy celebrating the virtues of bacon. Such nimbleness allows what could have been quite a turgid, slow-moving piece to skip along nicely.

And the play’s politics, which are built around the temporary ceasefire of Christmas 1914, must be mentioned, principally because they constitute a warning of war´s folly. The show is embued with the spirit of John Donne´s famous poem ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ – when the death bell tolls, in whatever near or distant land, don´t ask for whom it tolls, for it tolls for thee, etc, etc. Such a sentiment is always welcome, particularly when woven and conveyed as intelligently and poetically as it is here. We occupy a world perpetually scarred by sectarian spite and and yet we are also connected by the beauty and kindness of humanity. War gets the upper-hand too often and this play humbly regrets that this is the case.

The writing is filled with lovely lines and dynamic images which neatly capture the play´s  themes. An example is when a soldier´s experience of lice attracts sympathy from allies and enemies alike – human frailty as the common enemy. At another point, a group of soldiers from both trenches try to capture a hare to use for a Christmas dinner. The two sides are united by their common need to eat, to celebrate and to live. The hare escapes, and continues to forage for food, its own quest for survival quietly similar to the soldiers who fight around him.

The play also had a darker side – pointing a finger in the direction of those who push war into motion, and profit from them while remaining immune to their dangers. And we are given little regarding the soldiers’ motives for war. What are their politics? Why didn´t they object? As it stands, all soldiers are cast as soft and naive and lovable – their fate tragic – when the reality was perhaps a little murkier than that. But, when all things are considered, this play remains an impressive hour of spirited drama.

Please leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Our Friends, The Enemy runs until 24th August 2013 at the Space at Surgeon’s Hall, as a part of the Edinburgh fringe festival.Booking Line: 0131 226 0000 or book online at www.edfringe.com

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