Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 4 – 6, 2014
Playwright: Stephen MacDonald
Director: Carla Moore
Cast: Roger Gimblett, Patrick Magee
Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes does not glorify war. It pays reverence instead to art, friendship and the loss of young lives. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were English soldiers in the first World War, remembered for their poetry about horrors they had faced while serving their nation. MacDonald’s play uses their work and other historical fragments to create a narrative out of the men’s extraordinarily intense and close friendship, which was forged out of their shared passion for poetry and the trauma they had both sustained from being caught in the middle of battlefield devastation. In each other, they had found a partner in life and art who was able to provide support and trust, with a unique understanding of the other’s inner world. MacDonald’s depiction of the relationship is vivid, emotional and grand, sometimes even romantic, and although their intimacy never extends into a physical one in his rendering, we feel a depth between the two that is no different from those of most marriages or families.
The play includes many passages by the poets, cleverly selected and contextualised to express the development of the characters, their relationship and their experience of the war. Direction by Carla Moore gives the production an emotional quality that is affecting and very sentimental. We feel the love between Sassoon and Owen, and even more so, we feel for all the soldiers who have been sent to war and the masses who have perished over the years. Moore is precise with what each scene is to achieve, and the show she creates is consistently clear in its plot trajectories and in the sentiments it wishes to convey at each juncture. Her control over performance ensures that the actors always provide appropriate nuances, with a noteworthy emphasis on speech that allows every powerful word to resonate for the audience. The use of a screen enhances the effect of sections in the play that delve into details of war, with sobering and impactful results.
Acting in the piece is sensitive and authentic. Both players show an enthusiasm for the material at hand, and their attachment to it is conveyed impressively. Roger Gimblett plays Sassoon with a stateliness that efficiently paints a picture of a man with stature and experience, giving credence to Owen’s very early admiration. Gimblett’s use of voice is outstanding, and diction is a crucial asset for a play that relies heavily on the legacy of poetry from the era. The boyish Owen is embodied by Patrick Magee who imbues beautiful spirit and purity to his work, and his understated vibrancy makes an important statement about wasted youth. Magee has excellent focus and presence that allows his role to remain in balance with his counterpart who performs with greater gravity. Gimblett and Owen are lively entertainers who have successfully identified light and heavy sections of the play, and they deliver accordingly with performances that are captivating and surprisingly dynamic.
This review is written on the day that marks the centenary of the first World War. With the advent of information technology, we are more aware than ever, of atrocities that occur around the world, where communities are decimated in the name of religion, ethnicity, and honour. The “war to end all wars” has long been revealed to be a lie. Not About Heroes is a reminder that life in all forms is precious, and all sacrifice in war is tragic. Peace is hardest to achieve of all that is worthy, but the pursuit of it must never be surrendered.