Regeneration at The Everyman, Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 17:30 28 October 2014 | UPDATED: 10:37 05 November 2014
What did Katie Jarvis think of Regeneration, the new play at The Everyman Theatre commemorating the centenary of the First World War?
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
Wilfred Owen, September-October 1917
“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.”
Siegfried L Sassoon, July 1917
When Freud published his The Interpretation of Dreams at the turn of the 20th century, he revolutionised psychology. But, as he himself pointed out, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Certainly, when the soldiers of the First World War awoke with night terrors – images of bombs, scattered bodies, skies lit with explosions, ground littered with limbs – their nightmares of death were nightmares of death. No symbolism intended. No interpretations needed. Those sickening dreams were exactly what you’d expect of men who’d been to hell and back.
For the ordinary soldier, shellshock was treated with a couple of weeks of leave at best; or a bullet to the chest from your own side at worst. It was cowardice; treason. Not a humane reaction to an inhumane world gone mad.
For the officers, life was slightly better. For there were hospitals such as Craiglockhart, outside Edinburgh, where psychology – in its infancy – was practised on men too traumatised to fight. And here it was that the writer Siegfried Sassoon and the poet Wilfred Owen were to meet. Their plight was similar; the circumstances that had brought them there were very different. Sassoon had published Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, in which – as ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’ – he accused politicians of deliberately prolonging the conflict for ends he believed to be evil and unjust. Rather than admit that the accusations he was making had any basis in reality, however, his superiors decided to label him mad: it saved them court-martialling him at a trial in which he could have caused serious trouble.
The events that led Owen to this Edinburgh hospital were far less within his control. During a fierce bout of fighting, he was blown sky high by a trench mortar and spent several days beside the corpse of a fellow officer. Interestingly, of course, that dreadful trauma directly led to one of the great periods of Owen’s life – meeting his hero, Sassoon.
Pat Barker’s fabulous novel, Regeneration, deals with these events, at the heart of which lies Owen’s famous 14-line sonnet, Anthem for Doomed Youth, composed with the advice and help of Sassoon while at Craiglockhart. And now Nicholas Wright has adapted Barker’s novel for the stage. And what a performance it is! Harrowing, insightful, wicked, compassionate.
We’re introduced to Craiglockhart’s patients gradually and terribly. There’s Billy Prior (the wonderful Jack Monaghan) from whom speech has simply vanished. When Captain Rivers, the hospital’s psychologist, tries to get him to articulate his horrors, his message – scribbled on a pad of paper – is eloquent: NO MORE WORDS. Why would anyone want to speak when words – from politicians, safe in their offices – murder and kill? There’s Burns, who chokes on any food he eats because it reminds him of regaining consciousness on the battlefield, his face deep into the guts of a dead German. Or the officer who is convinced his spine is broken, when it’s simply his backbone that has gone.
We see the developing relationship between Sassoon and Owen – the latter falling deeply in love – as they work on the sonnet that will sum up the futility of war for all future time. Sassoon (Tim Delap) has turned his hatred of Germans onto his fellow countrymen, who see war as cheap entertainment. Owen (Garmon Rhys) is different; he knows Sassoon must go back. Because the war needs not soldiers but poets – they’re the only ones who can win a future peace.
For me, the star of this show is Captain Rivers (Stephen Boxer), so ahead of his time in his treatment of these men. He is physically revolted when he sees a fellow practitioner torture a mute soldier into speaking, by administering electric shocks. Yet, despite his enlightenment, he has to confront the dreadful irony that success for him means sending men back to slaughter. Mending a hole in a body is one thing; mending a hole in the soul is another.
This was a fantastic, heart-rending, dreadful, unmissable evening, which left an audience sick to the stomach yet unfailingly heartened. Schoolchildren by the dozen were there – will they learn from others’ stupidity, I wonder? The acting was simply wonderful; the script breathtaking.
The war left us with some of the most wonderful poetry ever written. Ha! Another irony. It’s certainly a high price, which we still seem to be paying for on tick.
Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori
Rgeneration, October 21-25, Everyman Theatre, 7-10 Regent St, Cheltenham GL50 1HQ, 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk
This article is by Katie Jarvis. For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter.