JOYCE MCMILLAN on FOR KING AND COUNTRY at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and LUCKY BOX at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 2.4.09
For King And Country 4 stars ****
Lucky Box 4 stars ****
WHAT DO YOU EXPECT, when you head to the King’s Theatre for a night of dramatic entertainment? Normally, it’s a show of two halves, presented in the kind of showbiz performance style that helps to fill a big auditorium; often it’s fairly old-fashioned stuff, with a conventional set neatly contained behind the fourth wall of the proscenium arch. And usually, in the end, it offers a sense of resolution; even in tragedy, we’re allowed to feel that something has been completed, some complex and difficult human story made more lucid and beautiful in the telling.
So it’s a measure of the subtle but telling radicalism of John Wilson’s fine 1964 play For King And Country, about the fate of a young British deserter on the Western Front at the height of the First World War, that it so rigorously challenges some of these expectations, leaving the audience shaken and disturbed. In some ways, this latest show from the Touring Partnership, co-produced by the King’s Theatre itself, looks conventional enough. It has two straightforward big-stage sets, one suggesting the grim half-ruined cellar where the hapless Private Arthur Hamp is being held for trial, the other the once-handsome room in a commandeered house where the court-martial takes place. The action is divided into three conventional acts; and the actors playing the officers all look the part we’ve come to expect from a dozen First World War dramas, down to the historically accurate uniforms, and the brisk, stiff-upper-lip accents.
That, though, is where the reassurance ends; for in a sombre 90 minutes without an interval, Wilson’s play flatly refuses to comply with most of our preconceived ideas about how such a drama should unfold. On one hand, it is utterly relentless in its portrayal of the breathtaking cruelty of a system which takes a barely articulate country boy, whose nerve has broken after three years on the front, and judicially murders him for his moment of weakness, or of sanity. In its notably courageous final act, it even resists our longing to see Hamp achieve some kind of peace in death, showing him hauled to the firing squad in a squalid haze of rum and morphine, unable even to take final communion from the increasingly distraught padre.
Yet at the same time, it looks squarely at the horrible truth that once this kind of mass warfare has begun, even good men are forced to conclude that without such draconian discipline, troops could never be brought, day after day, to wage the war, and lay their lives on the line. The officers here – Daniel Weyman as defending officer Hargreaves, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the brusque but practical Lieutenant Webb, David Yelland as the President of the Court – are not monsters, but brave and articulate men, full of intelligent awareness of the pressures faced by ordinary soldiers; yet at the end, the padre’s agonised tears of conscience irritate even the best of them, as a distraction from the business of war which they must complete.
All of this is powerfully captured in Tristram Powell’s thoughtful production, which features intense ensemble acting from a fourteen-strong male company, and an unforgettable central performance from Adam Gillen as Hamp, a kind of slow-witted Dickensian orphan trapped in the ultimate 20th century nightmare. Sometimes, the acting style is disconcertingly naturalistic and low-key, given the size of the stage. But in the end, Powell’s quietly realistic approach pays rich dividends, in a production that shocks as much as it moves, and places the audience in an unavoidable confrontation with the real brutalism of war.
David Harrower’s new short play Lucky Box – the latest show in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre season at Oran Mor and the Traverse – also circles around the theme of men and violence. In a clearing in a forest, a man in a suit – known only as A – sits on a mysterious plastic box, waiting for someone; he confronts a boy known only as J, a poised and cold-eyed teenager from whom he seeks – well, perhaps information, or reassurance, or a sense of contact with a lost son.
That the man is damaged in some way is not in doubt; in a script full of Harrower’s characteristic spare poetry and ruthless observation, he says he is a casualty of the economic downturn, reeling from the “body blow” of redundancy from (the ultimate irony) his job as a careers adviser.
But as the conversation continues, it seems the damage goes deeper than that. His son is not – or has not been – a normal boy. His wife seems to have become a stranger. And it gradually emerges that this exchange is taking place in the aftermath of some decisive act of aggression or violence; although who is the perpetrator is never quite clear, as A., veers ever more alarmingly among the possible roles of protective father, kindly mentor, distraught avenger, ruthless abuser, and damaged psychopath, and J. looks increasingly like a strange hybrid of villain and victim.
At the end, the outcome of the dialogue remains tantalisingly open, although we fear it cannot come to good. But in the meantime – given two superb performances from Stuart Bowman and Scott Fletcher , in Dominic Hill’s quietly lethal production – we seem to have visited not only some of the most dark and damaged places of our own society, but somewhere much more ancient than that. A place, that is, where older men challenge young ones, and vice versa, for reasons of fear, ambition, lust, rage, revenge, dominance, or survival, that can never be fully scrutinised; but that are always there, lying in wait, whenever we step beyond the bounds of civilisation, and into the woods.
For King And Country at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 4 April; Lucky Box at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 4 April, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 7-11 April.