This review was originally written for Cherwell
Earlier this term, as I have no doubt you will immediately recall, I bemoaned the surfeit of First World War drama on stage in this, the conflict’s centenary year. I argued that this glut of like-minded sentiment risked provoking a compassion fatigue amongst audiences, risked depriving these productions’ subject matter of its fundamental poignancy through sheer inundation. “In a climate of commemoration, it is originality that ensures a play has a strong emotional impact”, I concluded, “It is the revelation of a new perspective on well-worn stories that truly engages an audience.”
I am pleased to say that a play with such invigorating vision has arrived. Regeneration, which is on at the Playhouse this week, is a dramatisation of Pat Barker’s trilogy of the same name. It concerns the patients of Craiglockhart Psychiatric Hospital during the summer of 1917, principally Siegfried Sassoon (Tim Delap) and Wilfred Owen (Garmon Rhys), and their various psychological developments under the kindly eye of Captain Rivers (Stephen Boxer). Managing to address multiple moral issues surrounding conflict with refreshing lucidity, whilst simultaneously treating audiences to a performance of genuine emotional integrity, Regeneration is a triumph — a theatrically sound, thought-provoking and subtle production.
What Nicholas Wright has done extremely well in adapting Barker’s novels for the stage is to merely outline its moral discourse. Refraining from clumsily battering the audience with various socio-political commentaries, Wright instead drip-feeds moments of implicit ethical significance: a definition of the relationship between Sassoon and Owen is never attempted, but snatches of conversation reveal its complexity; another patient’s casual criticism of Sassoon’s anti-war sentiment only hints at the military’s fundamental bloody-mindedness. Wright nudges the audience down one path, before tentatively pulling them down another, gently hinting at a subtext but never doing more than is absolutely necessary.
Such delicacy, such dramatic shrewdness, provides the ideal platform for performance. The cast embrace an understatement, a refinement almost, one both appropriate to the era and to Wright’s script. All are, for the most part, economical with external expressions of emotion, yet without exception, all manage to convey a profound sense of inner turmoil. Behind his clipped accent, Sassoon wrestles with fierce personal demons. Underneath his nervous fidgeting, Owen’s conscience is conflicted. Rivers’ calm, twinkly-eyed exterior belies the crisis of conviction raging underneath.
At times, these inner tempests puncture through their composed exteriors. Sassoon hallucinates, Owen flares up in anger, Rivers lets out a solitary sob. These flashes of emotional colour are sufficient to maintain the piece’s visceral nature. They are regular reminders of the unbearable horrors of the war and they are masterfully realised. The shade of lighting shifts almost imperceptibly, the atmosphere draws closer, and the memories of abomination become tangible.
A set of supporting characters are similarly, if not quite as three-dimensionally drawn. Jack Monaghan’s arrestingly human portrayal of Billy Prior, a northern lad all too aware of his own mortality, is borderline show-stealing, however. His dry, monotonous drawl is just as endearing as Sassoon’s well-spoken earnestness, or Owen’s restless anxiety, or Rivers’ world-wearied good nature.
In truth, there are few characters that do not come across as thoroughly decent human beings, despite their impersonal uniforms; “You do a wonderful impersonation of a stuffed suit”, Prior tells Rivers. This universal good-nature is far from tedious. It lends the play an unexpected wholesomeness that, when combined with Wright’s laudably subtle writing, Stuart Earl’s contemplative score, Simon Godwin’s intelligent direction and a set of memorable performances, makes for a truly engaging production. Forget any misgivings about First World War drama, Regeneration is as compelling as they come.