Writer: Pat Barker
Adaptation: Nicholas Wright
Director: Simon Godwin
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
A century of distance separates us from the outbreak of World War One, and this lens of retrospect allows us clarity to see not only the differences but also the startling similarities between Britain then and Britain now.
It is apposite that this adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration is touring to Edinburgh – much of the action takes place in the requisitioned military hospital at Craiglockhart, just a mile or so from the theatre itself. Here, in 1917, Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon (Tim Delap) is under the care of a Captain Rivers (Stephen Boxer), a military psychologist who draws on the still-new theories of Freud in the treatment of his patients.
Most men at Craiglockhart are suffering ‘shellshock’, but Sassoon is uniquely confined here as an alternative to facing a court-martial for penning a declaration of ‘wilful defiance of military authority’, believing the war could be better resolved by negotiation than through continued slaughter. Rivers must negotiate the terrain of Sassoon’s mental state, to administer his “strange kind of healing”, with the intention of getting the Lieutenant back to active field combat.
Nicholas Wright’s skillful adaptation explores the nature and effect of early psychological treatments, as well as moral issues of battlefield combat. At the heart of the story are four characters through whose relationships we get to witness both horror and humanity. Alongside Sassoon and Rivers are Billy Prior (Jack Monaghan) an officer whose mutism gives way to a dry wit and grounded moral integrity, and Wilfred Owen (Garmon Rhys) another budding war poet who would go on to become, alongside Sassoon, a defining voice of the frontline trenches.
The fluidity with which Simon Godwin’s production shifts emotional tone is smartly managed, from the wit and camaraderie of soldiers confined to barracks to the psychologically nuanced dialogues between Rivers and his patients. Scenes of measured emotional revelation give way to truly shocking moments capturing the horror of not only the trenches, but also the unsettling experience of a fractured mental state.
The relationship between Sassoon and Owen is based on the reality of their contact at Craiglockhart, but is expanded upon more than in Barker’s original novel. That Sassoon advised Owen on redrafting (and retitling) his poem Anthem for Doomed Youth is acknowledged fact, but the scenes showing the process of these revisions feel a little too pat and neat – the poet’s agonising crawl towards the creative expression of such heartfelt horror is missed, and Garmon Rhys’s recitation of the poem in full feels over-delivered, rendering its haunting, emotional chill starkly cold and strangely weightless.
The final scenes, too, are heavy on over-exposition and emotional resolution, tying up neatly ends that might have been expressed more dramatically at greater length.
Yet the play’s reflections on today’s world are stark and profound, and the emotional impact of the real-life experiences of the men (and women – explored more fully in Barker’s novel) at places like Craiglockhart are deservedly encapsulated in the strong and lucid performances of the cast.
We continue to struggle to resolve our moral ambivalence with international warfare, as well as our discomfort around issues of mental health. Rivers’ articulation of the war’s “dark infection of guilt” is a prescient descriptor of the post-traumatic stress syndrome that has gained increased recognition over the past century, encouraging treatment with infinitely more compassion than shown by the play’s barbaric Dr Yealland (Simon Coates). But it will be the prescience of Sassoon’s vision of interminable global conflict, suggesting that “a hundred years from now, they’ll still be ploughing up skulls”, that will stay with you long after the curtain has fallen.
Runs until 4th October