For King and Country
Southwark Playhouse, 17th July 2018
You get all sorts of theatre at the Southwark Playhouse. Bold, experimental stuff, new works, revivals, youth theatre, musicals. classics. You name it, someone will put it on. It doesn’t always fly, but very rarely does it disappoint. That would be my overall take on For King and Country. The play was written by John Wilson and premiered in 1964 with a cast including Richard Briers, Leonard Rossiter and John Hurt. All greatly missed. It is based on part of the novel Return to the Wood by one JL Hodson, (nope me neither), and was quickly made into a very successful film with Leo McKern, Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtney, (who at least thankfully is still showing his immense acting talent on screen). I haven’t seen the film, at least I don’t think I have.
There is nothing tricksy about this story. A proper, straight up and drama which is nonetheless very moving. 306 men in the British army were executed for cowardice in WWI. It is thought that many of them suffered from shell-shock, or, more correctly, post-traumatic stress disorder. The play tells the (fictional) story of one of them. Private Hamp, (a fine performance here from Adam Lawrence), has, almost absent-mindedly, wandered back from the front line at Passchendaele in an attempt to return home to London. He is captured by the military police and put on trial for cowardice and desertion. The increasingly sympathetic Lieutenant Hargreaves, played by Lloyd Everitt, does his level best to defend him. The President of the Court (Peter Ellis, all stiff upper lip) isn’t going to be swayed by the appeals of the youthful Padre (Eugene Simon), wrestling with his faith, placing more weight on the testimony of the weak-willed Medical Officer O’Sullivan (Andrew Cullum) who told Hemp to pull himself together and prescribed useless laxatives. Both the medical officer and Hemp’s CO Lieutenant Webb (Henry Proffit, suitably obnoxious), fear the consequences on the “morale” of the troops if they accept that Hemp’s behaviour requires sympathy and treatment, not condemnation, and are keen to sacrifice him as an example to others. However the Court can see that mercy is required.
A courtroom drama, a set-up guaranteed, from our contemporary perspective, to make the blood boil with anger at the cruelty of the military machine, and a plot which holds sufficient suspense such that, whilst fearing the worse in terms of outcome, you hope for the best. Yet what really makes the play interesting is the character of Hemp himself. Hargreaves, and another officer, Lieutenant Midgeley (Fergal Coghlan) do everything they can to explain Hemp’s behaviour, but he is passive, preferring to place his faith in Hargreaves oratorical skills. We see something of the class divide between the officers and the rank and file and we also learn that Hemp, a volunteer, is the last of his company alive, a friend was blown up by a shell in a foxhole and that his wife has left him back home.
Director Paul Tomlinson doesn’t do any funny stuff, the play neither requires nor deserves it, and designer Jacqueline Gunn has come up with a convincing set. The production comes courtesy of the Dilated Theatre Company, under AD Alexander Neal, which focusses on the political, plays by the likes of Barrie Keefe for example. All up then a fine play, diligently performed, even if it didn’t push any theatrical boundaries. It takes a bit longer than it should to get going but the second half definitely draws you in.
Finally remember that it took until 2006 before these 306 “deserters” were finally granted posthumous pardons, and only then thanks to the efforts of the family of Private Henry Farr and after a long legal battle. FFS. You have to wonder at idiocy of the Establishment sometimes.