I count myself very lucky that my family, my friends and I have never had to deal personally with the horrors of war. I’m not acquainted with anyone in the military services; in fact the only people I’ve ever known who have gone to war were from my parents’ generation. I was born at a fortunate time; maybe if the Falklands War had somehow escalated and conscription was introduced I might have been caught up in that; and if at some time in the future we have a World War Three on the lines of the previous two, I might be required to join some kind of Dad’s Army, although I can’t imagine that such a unit would have a place in modern warfare.
So I have no personal insight into the world of war, but I do have experience of being a human – and this is what this play is all about. Humans pushed to the edge of what is endurable, and then being required by society to be heroic role models, to kick mental health issues under the table, and basically, having done their heroic jobs, to crawl back into their boxes until the country needs them, or their sons, to fight another war, next time around.
In the past when I’ve opened up a theatre programme to discover that the play is a two-hander I’ve always felt a slight sense of disappointment. Somehow you expect less from the play in advance; fewer characters, obviously, but also fewer themes, less variation, maybe a smaller overall vision. Well this two-hander breaks all those preconceptions. It’s chock-full of vision and themes, and whilst there may only be two characters, you really do get to know them inside out. This is quite simply a superb play, written by Sandi Toksvig with sensitivity and insight, wit and compassion, brought to life by two stunning performances in a lucid, inventive production that absolutely gets to the heart of the play and lets the words do the work.
Private Eddie Clark, (strong, young, undereducated, uncontrolled) is interviewed by Major Oscar Hadley, (no use of legs, older, highly educated, controlling and calculating) regarding allegations of his committing an act of summary justice in the field of war. From a point of view of class and background, the two men are worlds apart, linked only by their profession. But then something happens that directly affects the way they both look at their lives, and as their relationship perforce develops, in ways that you would not foresee, similarities arise between them. Woven into this relationship are the themes of loyalty, comradeship, authority, aspiration; reality and fantasy; teamwork and solitary existence. It’s a play of great intensity; from the moment Oscar starts his address to the Court Martial at the beginning of the play to his summing-up at the end, your ears hang on every word and your eyes watch every movement. Normally I’m quite critical of productions where there is no interval – this play is 100 minutes non-stop – as there nearly always is a suitable point where you could break, so we can all get a drink, nip to the loo, all-round freshen up, discuss the first act with you co-attendees, and then return fit and alert for the second half. However, in this play, it’s absolutely vital that there is no 15 minutes break; you would lose that intensity and drive, and it’s best if you don’t allow yourself reflective time to consider what’s going on and how it will all turn out. The end becomes all the more convincing and appropriate as a result.
The whole design team have joined forces to create a deceptively simple set, which, with a little visual and sound stimulation, can take you from court to hospital to library to war but with minimal distraction away from the text and performers. It’s amazing how much a table and a chair can re-create on stage when your imagination gets to work. The back projections by Scott Radnor are particularly effective, and the sound effects by John Leonard were superbly realistic.
But of course it is the performances of the two actors that really remain in your mind. As Oscar, Anthony Andrews brings with him all the bearing, stage presence and technical prowess that you would expect. When he rages, it feels violent and bitter so that you are pulled up sharp in your seat. When he’s sarcastic or manipulating, you rather despise him and want to get your own back on him. When he’s vulnerable and weakened you feel sympathy and you realise he is only human too. You have a constantly changing opinion of him, which helps maintain the pace and intensity. Joshua Miles’ Eddie is a troubled, difficult soul, lacking a direction for his energy, but with whose frustrations you instantly identify, and who you are willing throughout the whole play to be able to turn his life around and have a future. At so many different times throughout the play, his eyes tell a story of unseen, unspoken horror and anguish, and it’s a terrific performance.
Actually it’s difficult to describe these two performances separately because they really constitute a team. The level of trust between them must be incredible as they dovetail in and out of scenes, constantly relying on each other to create a situation that the other will then work off. It’s a total partnership and it felt like an absolute privilege to see them work together. For 100 minutes there is no let-up of focus between them. Even between scenes you can still see the intensity in their expressions. It’s all quite brilliant.
If I have one slight criticism, it is that just very occasionally I felt the script moves away from a credible conversation between the two characters and takes on the role of a Sandi Toksvig polemic against our political leaders who send our troops out to kill and be killed in their name. But then I think of the beautifully written speech by Oscar where he describes how he answers Eddie’s father’s question about why we went to war; subtle, clear, ghastly and hilarious. It really is a superbly crafted play.
Oscar and Eddie’s relationship (I don’t think you could call it a friendship) goes through many phases, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Mrs Chrisparkle thought some of the situations stretched credibility to an extent – they would not be the kind of experience that a Major and a Private would share – although she was completely prepared to forgive Ms Toksvig because overall the thing is just so splendid. Personally, I disagreed; I thought they were totally believable situations and that the experiences of war can drive people to behave oddly and make the unexpected into reality. However, what we did agree on was that it is an extraordinary play and production with great performances. After it leaves Northampton it will be the first play at the new St James Theatre in London, and I think it’s going to be a hot ticket.