“It is sweet and right”

Regeneration finishes its UK tour at The Grand Theatre, Blackpool this week in fine form and, with the Armistice Day wreaths still in place at the Cenotaph, makes for a timely evening of reflection on the complexities of the Great War and some of the well-known words that we have been left with from those poet-soldiers who were on the front-lines.

Based on an original and highly acclaimed trilogy of books by Booker Prize winner Pat Barker, adapted into a play by Nicholas Wright (who also adapted His Dark Materials for the National Theatre) and directed by Simon Godwin who is an Associate of both the Royal Court Theatre and Bristol Old Vic. The play centres on the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen when they first met in 1917 at Craig Lockhart Hospital, an institution set up to deal with the effects of shell-shock on officers during World War One.

Sassoon, as a celebrated poet of the time, made a public declaration which would normally receive Court Marshall, a fate that he escaped due to the protective actions of his friend, colleague and co-poet Robert Graves. The declaration that resulted in his temporary insanity diagnosis started: “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Surely the words of a lunatic!

The play opens with and remains within a simple yet effective set, punctured throughout by an eerie soundscape which offers insight into the stark corridors of the institution both by day and during the more frightening moments at night. A strong cast, some great movement set-pieces, a tight script and clear direction ensure that a piece which could have easily been an intellectual analysis of poetry is something much more visceral.

Stephen Boxer offers a delicate portrayal of the stammering psychiatrist Captain Rivers who is given the unenviable task of not curing these men so much as ensuring they return to the battle field. The obvious conflict that wages between his humanity and his professionalism is a touching display which leaves us unsettled, yet which also provides a welcome source of humour.

Whilst we may have moved on from the barbaric shock treatment that we see depicted and the clunky Freudian questioning, when we are presented with a man who cannot eat because after an explosion he awoke face down in a German soldier’s guts, we are confronted with the unimaginable awfulness that was and remains a consequence of war and whether we can ever realistically expect someone to recover from the devastating impact of that is highly debateable.

In Sassoon’s own words:

Does it matter? -losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? -losing you sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Regeneration has been produced by Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Touring Consortium Theatre Company and this is part of a longer term initiative to bring high-quality drama to regional venues. The Grand is one of eight partner venues in the consortium and so we can look forward to more great theatre from these companies in the future. For an excellent package of resources and opportunities to connect more deeply with these productions, visit www.theatrecloud.com

Regeneration is on at The Grand Theatre, Blackpool until Saturday 29 November and tickets are available to book online or on 01253 290 190.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Melanie Whitehead is the Creative Director of The Old Electric, Blackpool's newest theatre. She previously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

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