By Ben Smart
A key staple of the GCSE English poetry syllabus, not to mention the war poetry canon, the life and work of Siegfried Sassoon is one that many young people may be well acquainted with. Nevertheless, this familiarity would never detract from the poignant and sensitive exploration of the man’s life by Alice Butler, that is brought to life in radio format by DUCT. This is the first play to come through DUCT’s Classical Writing Competition, and Butler must be praised for creating a beautiful fusion of a simple story, from school days to the war zone, seamlessly interlaced with Sassoon’s poetry that gives a visceral experience of his life and mind.
It is no mean feat to have Butler’s level of insight into knowing which of his ever-resonant words best suit the moments she depicts in this snapshot of a country on the brink of war. Even if at points it may seem that the allusive quoting is perhaps a bit excessive, there is a flow employed that firmly allows us to see into the mind of the protagonist, without losing a grip on the narrative at hand.
Absolution begins with an instantly scene-setting use of The Last Post, played behind a shared rendition by the cast of Sassoon’s ‘On passing the new Menin Gate’, before then transitioning into another poetry reading of the Iliad. There is a great potency to these words and the striking parallels of classical and modern war instils a stirring sense of the tragic timelessness of wars past and present, although especially in radio format, it might have been a bit more subtle to have met some characters sooner to allow us to recognise the scene more quickly. The story’s themes are right at the front of the dialogue, clearly setting the stakes and morals of the world, giving testament to the powerful longevity of poetry even in the face of a palpable national mortality. The mutually assured bind of poetry and war, stressed through honest human interaction, helps to make the characters and their plight all the more accessible and relatable.
The quality of the production is very strong. Seamlessly interlaced sound effects (overlapped laughter, footsteps coming and going, bells ringing) all serve to create the effect of a very professional audio drama. Volume levels and microphone quality variation did have its own inevitable quirks, but DUCT have shown they are more than capable of working in the new game of audio drama, with well-cut editing if a bit slow paced at points. The use of music with historic soundbites are wonderfully layered to move the drama from place to place, so that following the story is never inhibited by a lack of visuals. The prod team must be lauded for the clipped and simple execution of this drama.
The voice cast is just as strong. Ben Johanson exudes great tonal control, showing the mind of a man trying to grapple with shock-soaked surroundings, and has great poignant and warming dialogue with the dynamic Issy Flower in particular. The articulation of straight-forward human concerns on a very human level by these very sensitive actors drives the play on. Oscar Scott and Eleanor Thornton equally share great talent for doubling as an array of different characters, using well-crafted voice alteration in accent and age. The fact that only 4 actors bring this tale to life is extremely impressive, albeit sometimes confusing as to who we are listening to at which point, but the script is well sculpted to reduce this obstacle.
Overall, Absolution is an emotionally and historically educative gem, of which the run time of 40 minutes is a perfect package to explore the story of a man that should definitely be heard, and Butler and the cast are the perfect vessel for this. Absolution is a very moving piece that speaks volumes about the importance of war time poetry by a highly professional cast and crew, that is not one to miss.
Image Credit: Durham University Classical Theatre