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NWR Issue 109

Not About Heroes

A touching examination of the love that existed within the Great War, Stephen MacDonald’s ‘Not About Heroes’ is as simple in execution as it is terrifying in pathos. Based on letters passed between two of the finest war poets of the last century, it examines their friendship, as both recover from the experience of the Western Front, their nerves stretched to breaking point, in a Scottish hospital.

Jack Llewellyn shoulders the imposing role of the venerable Siegfried Sassoon, a stoical character, forthright and not eager to return to active duty. Into his formal, aseptic world arrives Wilfred Owen, played by Neil Harris, initially timid in the presence of the more established poet, and yearning for his own voice, but hoping for guidance, and bearing his fair share of trauma, sustained on the bloody front lines in France.

Both actors offer mesmerising performances, and operate upon a minimalistic stage. With three chairs and two desks, they craft a tapestry of intimacy out of minute physical space. From Sassoon’s desk at Craiglockhart hospital, through Owen’s dugout, to Sassoon’s convalescence under the shade of the hospital trees, the use of space was sublimely beautiful and precise in delivery. Unhampered by title cards nor clunky exposition, the audience is allowed to accompany the two men, honestly, in their desire for truth within poetry and war, the one ideal neither refuses to compromise.

Most striking is the synergetic relationship between actors Llewellyn and Harris. As the play progresses, the roles are gradually inverted, with Owen flourishing both poetically and militarily. Owen’s journey from stuttering hopeful, through to capable wordsmith and military hero (Owen earned the Military Cross for gallantry) pervades the play with heroism and tragedy. His passionate line: ‘I can’t shout any kind of protest until I’ve earned the right!’ is a tragic indication that the honesty, so prized and praised in relation to his poetry, together with his unwillingness to sacrifice principles in relation to duty, will be responsible for his death.

In comparison, Llewellyn turns in a more nuanced, yet nevertheless equally dedicated performance, the older poet Sassoon standing as a man suppressing the symptoms of his own nightmares with a heavy dose of Victorian propriety. With dry wit and pithy remarks, Sassoon’s recovery is revealed in the way he adopts a teacher role to Owen’s pupil. The praise Sassoon gives the younger man, (though never in his presence) shows the audience his tenderness towards him. Owen’s literary success, symbolised by Mount Parnassus, is foretold by Sassoon, and he is the first to applaud when Owen reaches its summit.

In turn, when Sassoon becomes as invalid, he passes the role of provider to Harris’ Owen, and this is the finest moment of actor Llywellyn. Reversing the previous dynamic, yet still possessing the lightest touch, he confesses the truth behind his injury – Sassoon was shot in the head, but the possibility of a friendly fire incident forever lingers. He also reveals the guilt Sassoon carries over the much earlier death of a young, idealistic officer named David, a possible reason for his initial stay in Scotland. It’s not a stretch to recognise the substitution of Owen into such a role, helping the older man heal the mental scars, if not the physical ones.

Mental health is severely challenged in war, as veterans will attest and as this production demonstrates. The love between these men, so richly portrayed here, and drawn from the sources of their letters and poetry, is something that exists only within the realm of shared experience. To hear the words ‘I understand’ from someone who has felt and seen and suffered can help create an unbreakable love. That love soothed two great poets of the age, and was forged by an event destined to be felt a hundred years after its occurrence. Simple, powerful and beautiful, this play is synonymous with the cost, and perhaps certain gains, of war.

Devi Boulton is a post-graduate student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

‘Not About Heroes’ is a Frapetsus production and appeared at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 28 October 2015 The writer was Stephen MacDonald and the director, Bethan Lloyd.




       


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