JOYCE MCMILLAN on REGENERATION at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and OUTLYING ISLANDS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 4.10.14.
Regeneration 3 stars ***
Outlying Islands 4 stars ****
WHATEVER YOU THINK OF their 21st century heirs and successors, the British officer class in its heyday was a formidable sight, ruling the world with a unique combination of fierce emotional repression, an absolute sense of entitlement, and a muted but strangely eroticised self-adoration that is the very stuff of drama, and still absolutely dominates our efforts to understand and commemorate Britain’s great wars of the 20th century.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that, within weeks of a touring revival of Stephen McDonald’s lyrical two-hander Not About Heroes – the story of the officer-poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who met at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917 – the King’s Theatre this week plays host to a full-scale stage version of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s fine novel which deals with the same theme in the same setting, but revolves around the unassuming central figure of Captain Rivers, the hospital’s hugely enlightened chief psychiatrist.
Nicholas Wright’s stage version of the novel is not the most satisfying of plays; it tries to tell too many men’s stories in two-and-a-half-hours, and often drifts towards the stiff-upper-lip cliches that pervade British wartime drama. At its rough-edged best, though, it gazes unflinchingly at the sheer horror of the conflict, captures a critical moment in the history of psychiatric medicine, and uses the powerful character of working-class officer Billy Prior to explore issues of class that conventional British drama often prefers to ignore. The acting is impeccable, if often predictable; and Stephen Boxer as Rivers, Jack Monaghan as Prior, and Garmon Rhys as a young Wilfred Owen, are all in poignant and powerful form, as they lead us through a story now all too familiar, but seen here from a perspective full of interest, strangeness and compassion.
David Greig’s fine and slightly mysterious play Outlying Islands – first seen at the Traverse in 2002 – takes the story of Britain’s wars forward to the summer of 1939, when two young Cambridge scientists are sent to survey the bird life on a remote Scottish island which is about to become a test site for a new and lethal biological weapon. The extremity of the situation, on the brink of the war against Hitler, exposes profound spiritual and ethical differences between the senior man Robert – a kind of 1930’s eugenic fascist, who believes in “nature” as the only good – and the junior man John, whose gentlemanly moral inhibitions Robert mocks without mercy, particularly when they prevent him from having his way with Ellen, the island owner’s rebellious niece.
Outlying Islands is a play of questions rather than of conclusions, as a liberated Ellen becomes the prime mover in the drama, gripped by a life-force that neither man can fully match. This new touring production from Firebrand of Hawick gives the play its full value though, revelling in its strange symbolic intensity; and Richard Baron’s four-strong cast play Greig’s subtle dialogue to the hilt, in a play about the idea of “nature” which finally makes us glad that it was John and his slightly stuffy kind – and not Robert, and his – who went on to win the coming war.