Director: Eliot Giuralarocca
Writer: Stephen MacDonald
Reviewer: Sharon MacDonald-Armitage
With the commemoration of the outbreak of World War I keenly in the nation’s mind it is apt that the Blackeyed Theatre in association with South Hill Park are touring Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes, a poignant and emotional piece about the meeting of two of the country’s eminent and famous poets of the Great War; Siegfried Sassoon (James Howard) and Wilfred Owen (Ben Ashton).
The most immediate impact this production has is in the unusual set design. With previous productions giving a somewhat more defined sense of space this set, designed by Victoria Spearing mixes abstract figures that jar with the more recognisable piles of books spread across the stage. There is no specific area that suggests Craiglockhart War Hospital or the battlefield but the use of back projection and the movement of the actors around the stage leaves the audience in no doubt as to where the scenes are set.
Sassoon and Owen are two very different characters, with different backgrounds and education. However, it is their horrors of their time on the battlefields and their poetry that draws them together at Craiglockhart. From the tentative approach of Owen to Sassoon we see how their relationship develops into one of friendship, love and loss. Howard’s Sassoon is a sharp and slightly mocking character who clearly has little time for the establishment. His delivery of lines range from the funny and irreverent through to the heart breaking, something Howard does with consummate ease. Ashton is superb as Owen and develops nicely from the timid, lacking in confidence admirer of Sassoon’s work into the self-assured writer that we know Owen to be.
Despite Owen telling Sassoon he is, “not concerned with poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity” Owen does seek advice and guidance in ensuring the truth and pity he sees and feels is conveyed in his poetry and Sassoon is a conduit for this. There is a deeply intimate moment when the two men are editing one of Owens poems and you can see how much their symbiotic relationship acts as a panacea for their pains. There is already evidence of a strong relationship between the two actors who despite being at the start of a long tour already seem to be finding their way with these two vastly different characters; something that will clearly develop further as the run continues. This striking play leaves the actors vulnerable on stage with nothing more than each other, the poetry and letters between Owen and Sassoon for security and both Howard and Ashton do not disappoint.
Not About Heroes is a moving piece which has an even stronger impact this year and is thoroughly worth seeing whether you know the work of the poets or not. This is about much more than war and poetry.
Tour photo ¦ Runs until 13th September 2014 at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, then tours