theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Not far from Finsbury Park Station, in a complex of offices and mini warehouses, resides the home of Out of Joint, the theatre production company headed by the enthusiastic and erudite Graham Cowley. Cowley’s spacious and light-filled hub of business is positioned above the company’s rehearsal space, and Cowley expresses some pride at always being ‘hands on’ with the productions which evolve below. Cowley also produces a totally separate theatrical entity, Two’s Company. It is in this alternative capacity that he greets me warmly.
I am greeted also by Tricia Thorns, adaptor and director of the latest project to emerge from the Two’s Company stable, My Real War 1914 – ? This eighty-minute single-hander play complements earlier Two’s Company works, collectively titled Forgotten Voices from the Great War, which have breathed new life into an artistic period which has suffered undue neglect, until now that is. Starring that rising star Philip Desmeules, My Real War 1914 – ? is not an early twentieth century wartime drama written as a jingoistic statement of national pride, nor a politicized detraction of the unnecessary horrors of war: My Real War 1914 – ? is a dramatized realization of the real letters written by a real 2nd Lieutenant from the trenches of France.
Second Lieutenant Havilland le Mesurier, ancestor of the Dad’s Army star John le Mesurier, wrote almost daily to his parents back in Blighty. For his father, ‘Lem’, as he affectionately becomes known, is frank and painfully honest; for his mother, ‘Lem’ writes with the loving care of a son eager not to fright his beloved mama, choosing instead to comment on the creature comforts and everyday mundanities of life. The result is a fascinating insight into a world about which we can only imagine with horror, and into which so many young and inexperienced men were thrust, only to live or die according to the whim of war.
Thorns and Cowley explain how they first met and how the Forgotten Voices from the Great Warseason of dramas came about. “We cooked up this idea together sometime in 2001/2002,” explains Cowley, “just before the war on Iraq.” Thorns adds that they were “not searching for something that was obviously about Iraq,” although their search did lead to works which, because of their intensity and aptness, could be viewed as a personal form of protest.
Cowley explains that the project stemmed from so many visits to the British Library in London. “We were very aware that the only play most people can remember from the period is Journey’s End,” that powerful drama which has made a renewed impact on the West End over the last few years. Surely, in an age of such extreme emotional trauma and social anxiety, there must have been other drama which addressed the issues on which every newspaper report, every snatched conversation on a crowded woman-driven omnibus, every fleeting comment over a garden fence, was focused – the war in France?
The initial impetus to rediscover this lost drama came, however, from another library source; the National Library of Scotland. Cowley explains that, having spent his entire career involved with the production of new plays, this search for the drama of a forgotten past was somewhat daunting. Where to start? Fortunately, he had heard of the NLS “ask-a-librarian” scheme. Having “bunged off a query into the ether – asking ‘were there any plays other than Journey’s End written in or about the First World War?'” – Cowley was amazed to receive a long and thoughtful reply, accompanied by a list of plays. Some were by famous authors such as J M Barrie or Bernard Shaw, others by total unknowns and long-forgotten names, although all whetted the collective appetites of the Two’s Company duo.
“We booked into the British Library,” explains Cowley, “taking a few Saturdays to read six plays each day. We weren’t expecting anything in particular but both Tricia and I were staggered by the quality of some of these plays, all forgotten.” The result of this foray into the forgotten drama of a bygone age has been a series of plays which provide a unique insight into a lost world. Often never staged because of the restrictions of censorship, especially because their messages of wartime horror sat uncomfortably with the ‘Great War Effort’, these dramas speak loud and clear to their twenty-first-century audiences, experiencing their own ‘Great Wars’ and their own losses of innocent young lives.
The success of these unknown works of unique dramatic and historical significance was that more literature and drama was to come to the fore. One day, Thorns was presented by Ian Talbot with a book, published privately by the le Mesurier family, which contained the collected letters of young Havilland. Thorns explains that Talbot had been given this book by a lady and he thought to pass it on as possible “background reading.” Written from France between 1914 and 1916, these letters brought this officer’s experiences to life, and Thorns recognized the dramatic potential of staging them for a modern audience.
“Many of the letters were slanted towards his mother,” Thorns explains, “with requests for recipes for new potatoes or joking comments about a pussy cat which strays between enemy lines and which is the subject of comical attempts by both sides to entice it to their trenches.” “I was struck as a mother myself,” Thorns adds, “by how caring a son he was; he had a fine writing style – educated at Oxford and Rugby School – and how he could seize on those little moments in a very moving way.”
What seemed even more of a revelation was how different the Front could be, at least for the Officers. “There are descriptions in the letters of magnificent dinners and wine.” This is not the traditional idea of trench warfare with men holed up for months on end, rotting in mud and pinned down by enemy bombardment. This is a world of waiting and watching, when a few day’s duty at the front and a sudden onslaught would be followed by several days rest and relaxation and a level of comfort that beggars belief.
The drama also demonstrates the incredible admiration Havilland showed for his men, as well as their admiration for ‘Tiny’, the nickname they gave to their six-foot five-inch officer. It also demonstrates the importance of rediscovering these lost literary gems for their historical insight. How else might we learn of kippers arriving through the post to the front line, of fine oyster dinners and proper patisseries only a shell’s shot away from mass carnage, or the anger that letters were taking five days instead of two to wing their way to the frontline in France? Plus ça change?
As for the drama? Thorns describes it as a “cumulative effect” whereby we learn to love and appreciate this lucid young man. Does he survive the ”War to End All Wars’? That’s for you to find out. Suffice it to say, this simple though effective drama will enthrall and move in equal measure. Both Thorns and Cowley are adamant this is a play as much for the ‘now’ as it is for ‘then’. “We are in the midst of our own war in Iraq – there’s an odd similarity between what happened to the boys in the trenches and the suffering of young men on the receiving end of roadside bombs. Unlike the Second World War, where you never got near enough to an explosion, – now we have the trauma of shell-shock revisited.”
There is little doubt in Cowley’s mind that the “story of an individual’s path through a war is unfailingly interesting, especially when wars are on at the moment”. There is also little doubt that Tricia Thorns has adapted for a theatre audience a selection of letters which provide a fascinating insight into everyday human endurance and dignity in the face of indescribable adversity. It is this human dignity which underpins our social existence; one young officer on the frontline of War encapsulates the essence of everyday existence in a nightmare world. Our relationship with him is our relationship with all who offer their lives on a daily basis; as mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, we cannot fail but be moved by this fascinating drama.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007
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