IN A year’s time their words will resonate as never before, with the commemoration of the end of the First World War.
In the meantime, their story is being quietly told in a poignant production of Not About Heroes at Clwyd Theatr Cymru (until Nov 11), a story that is full of warmth and anger, of beauty and fear, of nightmares and banter, above all, of friendship.
It’s about the coincidental meeting of war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in Caiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland in 1917, both suffering nervous breakdowns after fighting in the trenches. It’s the stuff of legend, how these two damaged individuals helped each other use beautiful language to create terrifying images of warfare.
The co-prodction between Flying Bridge Theatre Company and Seabright Production, was simply staged: a bed, a desk, bare tree branches, changing blocks of colour, an intimate atmosphere punctuated by the blast of gunfire.
Daniel Llewelyn-Williams was Sassoon, a war hero decorated for bravery, now so bitterly disillusioned and angry he could barely be polite to the shy Owen, knocking nervously at his door. Sassoon had been locked up to prevent his anti-war diatribes becoming public, and Llewelyn-Williams captured his frustration, anger and cynicism well.
He was the confident, well-educated, acclaimed poet, while Iestyn Arwel’s Owen had the diffidence of a man whose father was a railwayman in rural Shropshire and who was only just starting to write. So he was the pupil at the start of the friendship, but Sassoon’s casual glances at his scribbling changed as he recognised his talent.
Arwel then took Owen on a journey, showing his growing confidence in writing that would ultimately produce some of the finest war poetry, including the excoriating Dulce Et Decorum Est. The journey was also back to the trenches. Severely shell-shocked, Owen was as frightened of cowardice as he was of the guns – so he went. As did Sassoon, unable to sit out the war safely at Craiglockhart.
The dynamics of this two-hander were fascinating. Some of the poetry was a little lost in performance but this was absorbing, disquieting theatre. For though the two poets spent just a year together, the effects of their liaison, their poetic indictment of the horror, the hyposcrisy, the futility of war, was profound and long-lasting.
As director Tim Baker, a former Associate Director of Theatr Clwyd, says in the programme notes, this ‘great play’ was ‘a fitting way to recognise the horrific sacrifices made during the First World War whether or not fighting for a just cause, as the play itself questions again and again’.
By Peggy Woodcock
Not About Heroes is at Theatr Clwyd until Saturday November 11. Tickets: £15 - £12, concessions available