Reviewed by G.M.P. for The Croydon Advertiser
Bringing it home
No belittling of their presentations is intended when I describe the Theatre Workshop Coulsdon 50-minute patchwork about the 1914-18 conflict as “Oh! What a Lovely War” in miniature.
It used similar techniques to the JoanLittlewood-Charles Chilton miscellany – slides of old photographs, wartime songs, and fragments of the war poets (romantic, like Brooke; disenchanted, like Wilfred Owen), interwoven with first-hand accounts of the carnage, sickeningly explicitl and so on. All to make the same point; what a futile waste.
Titled “This is no ordinary war,” Workshop’s collage was collected and edited by the members, some of it on a trial-and-error basis. The result was seen at their headquarters on Saturday, but unhappily, owing to the monsoon weather, by only a handful of people.
Nevertheless, for those who braved the rain and the vagaries of the 166 bus timetable, it was worth it. An intelligent American visitor said, and it was my experience too, that the personal suffering of this war had never been brought home to her so vividly – it had always seemed so remote.
In his absorbing book “The Empty Space,” Peter brook illustartes this point. Describing an experiment he made with an audience, he tells how he asked a volunteer to read a passage from Weiss’ “The Investigation” about bodies in a gas chamber. “The naked evidence from Auschwitz was so powerful it took over completely,” he says. then he gave another of the list of names and numbers quoted in “Henry V.” One look at Shakespeare set off a series of conditioned reflexes, he records; the speaker put on a false voice and mouthed the words while the audience fidgeted.
Mr Brook asked why they couldn’t take the list as seriously as the first account. “Agincourt’s in the past,” they said. “So, how many years make killing romantic?” Brook wanted to know. He asked the reader to start again, cutting out the histrionics and pausing before each name. Immediately the falseness vanished and the audience fell silent, aware now of those names as people like themselves.
It was this absence of phoney theatricality that paid such dividends at Coulsdon. Even the poetry was read matter-of-factly and not in the elocutionary voice. (“The poetry is in the pity,” as Owen said.) Speeches of politicians and trade unionists were declaimed enough to set them apart from such items as the sad letters from those ordinary people involved in the slaughter, but there was no wallowing in emotion for its own theatrical effect. Facts and comments contemporary with the touching faces staring out of the old pictures were sufficient.
I think, though, that it has to be recognised that such a programme inevitably simplifies issues. (This applies especially to such things as the cartoon-style sketch depicting the nations of Europe as quarrelling householders.) To be scornful of Haig and his vanity is legitimate from our hindsight, but other factors were at work, like less sophisticated communications and the attitudes of the day about patriotism, courage, and so on. “The boys in khaki” were caught in a trap all right, but it was one for which no one in that era had an escape hatch.
And I am always depressed by the fact that anti-war demonstrations only impress the converted. Wars are not made by sensitive, balanced people, but by those with deep-rooted hatreds and prejudices or paranoid complexes who are determined to force other people into accepting the same ideas, and who, thus, rationalise killing as a justified crusade.
All the same, it is cheering that so many young people are ready to attack these closed minds and try to let the light in. One totally respects the motives for programmes like “No Ordinary War” as well as the artistic integrity with which Vic Bateman, Terry Brant, Mariane Cope, Clare and Mary greeley, Diana Hewitt, Rosemary Quin, Terry Richardson, Fay Smith, Keith Walton and Tessa Young put this thought-provoking stuff over, Maurice Holdstock projected the well-chosen slides.
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