There is a powerful scene in John van Druten’s Flowers of the Forest in which Reverend Percy Huntbach, his wife Mrs Huntbach and their daughter Mercia almost spit out their venomous hatred of the Germans: the Germans are “devils”; “the huns are monsters”; “Germans have got to be stamped out”.
It’s October 1914, and the Huntbachs are joined by two young men about to fight in the trenches. One, Tommy, says controversially that Germany is, like France and Britain, losing its fair share of innocent young men, and appeals to the Reverend’s Christianity to value their human lives. Not so, says Huntbach. The only life of value to him is that of the spirit.
It’s a conversation that now sounds shocking, sitting in a theatre almost exactly one hundred years later. But it’s not as if such bigotry has disappeared: we only have to look at the way much of the media writes about the Muslim community; the massive increase in attacks on UK mosques; the alienation of more and more young Muslim men that drives them to join extremist groups.
When director Anthony Biggs was given a copy of the play by a friend of his who’d found it in Swansea Library, it was these themes – conflict and intolerance – that rang true, and he found it to be “especially relevant as we contemplate new conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine.”
The play was all but lost and this revival marks the first time it has been performed in the UK since the Second World War. As well as shining a light on the First World War and its aftermath, the moral questions it raises – primarily, is it worth sacrificing scores of young men in the interest of one’s country – could not have come at a more pertinent moment than in the same week MPs voted on military action in Iraq for the third time in 25 years.
Biggs chooses to transport us back to the first half of the twentieth century, care of marvellously detailed set and costumes by Victoria Johnstone. The first act is set in 1934, in the home of Lewis and Naomi Jacklin, who idle away the hours sipping gin cocktails and discussing art on the chaise longue. Naomi, played with intrigue and an air of mystery by Sophie Ward, is involuntarily reminded of her past, firstly by the arrival of her sister Mercia, and secondly by Leonard, a young man who suffers from tuberculosis. Both talk animatedly of a man named Richard – Naomi’s lost love who died in the war.
To fill in the gaps van Druten transports us back in time, firstly to 1914, and then to 1916. The play ends back on that same evening in 1934. Van Druten makes rather obvious comparisons between past and present, this character and that. Leonard may die from his illness, we learn, which will leave a young woman, Miss Hodgson, heartbroken: Naomi, having gone through the same ordeal, consoles her.
Naomi and Mercia are a stock pair of bickering sisters who couldn’t be more different from one another: Naomi calm and poised, Mercia sullen, negative, and always, always moaning. “Your lives are based on standards that don’t mean anything to me!” Mercia cries, rather melodramatically. Their relationship risks being cliche, and Mercia risks being insufferable, but both performances go beyond that: Debra Penny as Mercia in particular turns her into a source of comedy.
Other elements are less powerful. A shift into supernatural territory at the end feels unexpected and unnecessary, but the strengths of the rest of the production more than carry it along.