Much has been said and written about the rights and wrongs of the First World War in the last 100 years, but for me the story that most needs to be told is about the young men who experienced it. Those who died in squalid, stomach-churning, terrifying conditions and those who returned home with their heads full of horrors.
This is the story that is told in Regeneration, the latest in the Made In Northampton season at the Royal & Derngate, and produced to coincide with this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the war.
The play, adapted from Pat Barker’s novel by Nicholas Wright, is about a doctor and his patients at the Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War. Captain Rivers’ job is to care for shell-shocked and damaged soldiers sent home from the front. Soldiers who cannot speak any more, some who cannot remember, some for whom an everyday occurrence can spark an abrupt and overwhelming flashback.
And if he can fix them, what then? Well they are sent right back to France to start it all again.
This is the setting for the meeting of two of this country’s best known wartime poets. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
As the play begins in 1917 Sassoon, by then already a well known poet, has written a controversial public letter entitled Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration in which he berates the military authorities for deliberately prolonging the war despite, he believes, having the power to end it.
But instead of being court-martialled and shot, he is deemed to be having a breakdown and sent to Craiglockhart in Scotland for treatment.
Among the other patients are aspiring poet and Sassoon admirer Owen and a young officer called Billy Prior who initially cannot speak, suffers nightmares and says he cannot remember how this all began.
Sassoon, played by Tim Delap, feels fury and disgust at the attitude of civilians back in Britain who spout their ill-informed views about the war and patriotism while the soldiers suffer.
Owen, earnestly played by Garmon Rhys, holds the conviction that there should be a poet on the frontline to make sure that the truth is told for the people back home to hear.
Prior, played by Jack Monaghan, wants to return to the war despite all he has seen and however bad things were because it seems preferable to facing the shame of not being part of it. This was one of the most engaging of the performances, particularly as his relationship with Rivers develops. Together they come to the point in one of the most intense scenes of the play when Prior can recall the incident that pushed him too far.
Captain Rivers is played with understatement by Stephen Boxer, portraying an essentially kind man. He gradually moves on from patching up the emotional damage so the soldiers can return to war, to warming to the men as individuals and even trying to give Prior the get-out that he in fact does not want to take.
Neat staging and effects take the audience from room to room around the hospital and allow for an effective portrayal of flashbacks from the sufferer’s viewpoint and one very unexpected shock for the audience.
Regeneration was a bold choice of subject to start the theatre’s autumn season, but certainly a worthwhile and affecting piece of theatre for this centenary year.