Lest We Forget

War HorseSamatha Ball looks at theatre’s preoccupation with war, and the poignancy of war on stage.

Art makes us think, allows us to express emotion, forces us to remember and informs us of the experiences of others. Thus it is only natural for there to be a great focus on the theme of war in art. Theatre, as an art form, is a significant vehicle within this discussion, which is especially poignant in the centenary year since World War One.

Often theatre practitioners take a naturalistic approach to productions about war. This allows plays to mirror real life and real experiences. This reflection can powerfully inform the audience about issues of war in an emotive as well as factual sense. Theatre is uniquely able to do this since it provides an emotional education without putting pressure on those who have been affected by war as, for example, interviews can.

For example, Journey’s End written by R.C Sherriff in 1928. This masterpiece explores how ordinary men behave within the extraordinary backdrop of life in the trenches in the First World War.

The plot focuses on Captain Stanhope’s company in the British trenches as they build up to facing a German attack. It examines how different character’s personalities deal with this situation, for example Hibbert lies about being ill in order to go home, Stanhope turns to alcohol and Osborne concentrates on acting as a father-figure to distract himself. The naturalistic setting and constant dialogue between characters makes the gripping emotions vividly apparent for the audience, which forces them to connect with the characters. This makes the ending of the play all the more moving.

Another naturalistic production is Steve Gilroy’s Motherland. This is a verbatim piece based on the words of women from the North East affected by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan taken in interview in 2007. The Castle Theatre Companys staged this at the end of last month, and their producer George Rextrew made the following comments:

‘[…]it offers a truthful and honest perspective on war, and how it can destroy the lives of people who literally live down the road from us. It is a very stripped back production but therein lies its best quality – the words alone are enough […]’.

My Boy Jack by David Haig, fBy Mariam Hayatirst performed in 2004, is also relevant to this discussion. It is based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name, written in 1915. The play focuses on the Kipling family and their experience of having their son fight in the war.

Haig addresses how the family deal with the aftermath of the war and how their lives go on after Jack is declared missing, and it is eventually revealed that he was killed in action. The focus on family as well as war leaves the audience with inescapable empathy for the characters, which is heightened when the character of Rudyard Kipling recites his poem at the end of the play.

Of course, war is often addressed in theatre in a more abstract way. Issues relating to war are indisputably complex and so they are sometimes best-conveyed using unconventional methods. This method of communicating with the audience is a form of expression often unavailable or inaccessible in everyday life and is arguably more direct than other art forms, such as poetry or visual art, alone since theatre immerses the audience in the theme by affecting multiple senses.

An example of this is the use of puppetry in the play adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse, by Nick Stafford. The play follows Albert and Joey (his horse) as Joey is sold to the cavalry and Albert joins the army during World War One. The animals, including the comic goose, are puppets, and so the play is able to show the audience often overlooked aspects of the theme of war: its affect on animals. This non-naturalistic approach not only informs the audience, but also enables the realism of the emotion.

It is remarkable how quickly the audience forget the fact that the puppet animals are not real and this causes them to bond with the puppets as well as the human characters. This is particularly evident in the scene where the horses are trapped in barbed wire, which is enhanced by the inventive use of lighting and sound to highlight the tension in certain parts of the play.

The original London production at the National also had the use of the Olivier Theatre’s built-in drum revolve which allows the stage to rotate. This showed the puppets as if they were running, adding to the non-naturalistic yet realistic dichotomy.

Despite whichever approach is taken to express the theme of war in theatre, the most important issue is that it continues to be discussed and explored.

Through theatre we are able to empathise, to learn and to remember.



Photograph: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

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