Reviews not about heroes

Published on May 26th, 2014 | by Liz Allum


Review: Not About Heroes – Progress Theatre

In Reading, we all know and love Progress Theatre, run by volunteers, it is a true work of love and dedication and that echoes through its tiny rooms!

Not About Heroes tells a fictionalised account of the very real friendship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in 1917. Both poets and soldiers they met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh. Owen was suffering from post traumatic stress and slowly recovering, and Sassoon was sent there under somewhat false pretences, to prevent a court martial. Sassoon had sent an open letter of protest about the futility of the war and the media ran with it, much to the embarrassment of the government at the time. Sassoon was Owen’s hero, an established and published poet and, upon their meeting, a friendship grew fast, based on a mutual respect and admiration. Owen, under Sassoon’s sometimes stern guidance, became one of the country’s best poets at the time, a really exceptional writer, and greatly admired by Sassoon and his circle of literary friends.

The play is constructed through a series of letters that the men sent to each other, through letters that Owen sent to his mother, and through their own poetry. Because of the power of the existing, real story to these men’s lives and the horrendous context in which they wrote, the play has a feel of poignancy and importance. Whether this would translate were it not telling such an interesting story and a less powerful context as the first world war, is a matter to be debated. I am not convinced it would.

However, their poems and the war is so well understood now, that the audience bring their own context and fill in the gaps in the writing. This also means that a stripped back production, set, lighting and direction can work very well with the text, and this is what first time (and very nervous) director Steph Dewar tried to do. There is not much space at Progress Theatre, so a complex set is never really a viable option, therefore aiming for a more minimal approach is sensible. Upon seeing the set, however, I was surprised at just how much they had fitted into the space. A very naturalistic lay out, real desks, real chairs, creates the poets’ two writing spaces. Whilst the attention to detail in the creation of the set is lovely, it is not necessary with a play like this, already so full of detail. Similarly, the performers have no need to ‘act’ the text too much, the poetry speaks for itself.

This is a lovely production and I was impressed with the quality and conviction with which the whole thing was carried off. The feel of the play is almost one of documentary, full of monologues that should be addressed to the audience, explaining context and dates and emotions. With this in mind, staging the play as if the audience are not there, with a firm fourth wall in place, it felt as if there was a disconnection between the intention of the passages of monologue and their delivery. Perhaps other methods could have been explored to connect more with the audience.

The power of this story is that it is real, that the horrors of war are real, and fundamentally shaped these men’s lives and their creativity. They themselves are humble and matter of fact, and the two performers play this well, especially Owen Goode whose performance of the gentle and sincere Wilfred Owen was excellent. His reading of Anthem for Doomed Youth was moving and subtle. Both actors carried the script well and with confidence. They clearly understood the characters and again, this being a true story and these being real men helps this greatly.

Lighting and music was delicately chosen, and the hint of projection on the back wall worked well. Greater use of this large white space at the back would have pleased the visual theatre enthusiast in me , but that might have necessitated a more minimalist set.

Overall, I really enjoyed this production. The theatre and its network of dedicated and passionate members lends a real sense of community to their productions. Little touches, like a collection of locally made art work, connected to the themes of the piece and displayed in the foyer demonstrate how well thought through the theatre’s staging is as a whole; considering the entire experience, rather than just the show itself. I find myself greatly warming to Progress Theatre and looking forward to what they do next. With such a firm foundation, they have great potential to be bolder and more adventurous in their choices and I hope this new young director will build on her success with this show.

The play is on from Monday 26th May until Saturday 31st and I recommend you go and see it and support this important venue and those whose creativity it fosters.

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About the Author

is a theatre writer, currently Writer in Residence for the Corn Exchange's outdoor arts space, 101. She is also a theatre maker and global education trainer and founder of TAG Collective.

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