We watch this the day England make it into the semi-final. It’s overwhelmingly hot – the pavements are crackling and there are these shouts and whoops from every street corner. George and I wince, ducking, weaving through Elephant and Castle, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Something is bristling on the streets. We watch a video of a man jumping up and down on top of a double-decker bus. We watch a video of England fans running into an IKEA and trashing the place. We grow a little smaller.
And then we watch a play from the 60s about a deserter facing court-martial in World War I. It’s odd. John Wilson’s play is, you know, a mid-century play. It’s well-made, it follows specific arcs and falls. It never deviates from what you assume might, will, and does happen. Paul Tomlinson’s direction is functional, if not imaginative, taking place amidst a more enticingly abstract set by Jacqueline Gunn which suggests the far-reaching detritus of war. The performances are all solid, though hampered by the fundamental clunkiness of the play. The show becomes sparky and fluid in its courtroom scenes, but that’s inevitable – courtroom scenes are filled with innate drama.
There are hints that Wilson’s play was ahead of its time – references to mental health which sound ridiculous in the mouths of these straight-backed soldiers, ideas of toxic masculinity hiding underneath their starched uniforms. But it’s not enough. It feels sacrilegious to say but shows about World War I, despite it being the centenary this year, feel so unbelievably wooden and costumey and dated. The image of officers in those uniforms, fighting back their emotions in favour of Doing!What’s!Expected! – it’s so ingrained into our national consciousness that it doesn’t feel real anymore. The photos of 2016’s nationwide performance of We Are Here, where silent soldiers walked amongst contemporary society, felt so much more potent and moving because of that starkness, that contrast, that ghostliness. School children are taught about shell-shock, about the overwhelming, unnecessary deaths of young men at Passchendaele and the Somme, they learn the ultimate futility and horror of war through Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. There isn’t much dramatic force to this show because we all know exactly who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Even if Private Hamp faked his illness – who can really blame him?
I keep thinking about the atmosphere in London that day. For a few hours, the streets were ominously empty, and then, all of a sudden, filled with people screaming and laughing and drinking, unhinged in their ecstasy. It’s obvious why we should still have plays about World War I – I’m just not sure if this is the way we should be doing it anymore.