Back to the charming Royal Theatre for another of this year’s Made in Northampton productions, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the much loved novel about World War One, and indeed a Booker Prize nominee. It’ll probably come as no surprise, gentle reader, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have read it, nor seen the film, nor knew anything of what it’s about. So we came to the theatre with no prior knowledge and no preconceptions. Of course, I knew of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Graves. But I’d never heard of Craiglockart Army Hospital, and certainly didn’t know that Sassoon and Owen were both patients at the same time.
The action takes place between 1917 and 1919. Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon makes his “Soldier’s Declaration”, and refuses to return to duty, because “the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”. Instead of receiving a court-martial, he is sent to Craiglockart to undergo psychiatric treatment at the hands of the enlightened doctor Captain Rivers. Rivers’ somewhat bizarre task is to treat his shell-shocked patients and make them well again – so that they can go back to the front. That is his military, if not medical, brief. It sounds like something straight out of Catch-22. Whilst at Craiglockart, Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, who idolises the older man for his war poetry, and before long there’s a certain spark between them too. Part fact part fiction, the story includes many other patients including the non-officer class Billy Prior, and the play follows their progress through the war years, as well as Captain Rivers’ own personal and career development. To tell you more than that would spoil the plot for you.
Regeneration – it’s quite a cynical name for the play. Apparently, the title refers to Rivers’ research into what he called “nerve regeneration”. The OED defines regeneration as being brought again into existence, of being reborn. It’s true that Rivers, and other doctors like the sadistic Yealland, are trying to bring their patients back from their muteness and other mental incapacities; but not to reintegrate them back into a more normal society, but just so that they can be more cannon fodder. The name also implies that the concerns of this play continue to be relevant throughout the generations – through the Second World War, to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns of our own time. Certainly the play makes you feel uncomfortable about the effects of war and the treatments available, both then and today. When you see how fragile humans are, how we crumble when exposed to the excesses of war, when you know the level of cruelty with which man can treat his fellow man on the battlefield, it makes you despair that we still haven’t learned a better way to solve ideological and territorial differences. In amongst all this, Regeneration also brings us close to the War Poetry of the time; gut-wrenchingly heart-breaking, classically beautiful, idealistically noble, with death a terrifying inevitability. It may well send you back to your poetry books to rediscover the works of Wilfred Owen – I’d forgotten quite how devastating they are. It’s a very emotional play, and a very sad one; although it has a lightness of touch throughout that brings out the humour and the positivity in the characters and by extension in all of us.
Technically it’s a solid, classy production. The simple set works on our imagination to recreate not only Craiglockart but also the Conservative Club (class differences are very nicely observed in this play), the picnic field, and Yealland’s comfortless electro-shock therapy room. The military uniforms that were compulsory at the hospital are a permanent reminder of the wartime background and the deathly threat that awaits any recuperating patients. The lighting and the music combine to punctuate each scene and create some very eerie moments, including one major sudden shock that had Mrs C reaching for the Shiraz.
There are some fantastic performances. Stephen Boxer is overwhelmingly good as Captain Rivers. Quiet, unassuming, but with a steely glint that cuts through the crap and continually analyses patients, colleagues, situations, anything he comes across. Mr Boxer is a master of the throwaway line, with immaculate timing to both comic and tragic effect. This Captain Rivers would be an amazing boss to work for. Tim Delap brings us all the natural authority of Siegfried Sassoon’s self-confidence and aristocratic demeanour, but also his tangible moments of anxiety, and, in the last scene, an immense sense of resigned anguish. Garmon Rhys also gives a great performance as Wilfred Owen, enthusiastic, idealistic, desperate to please his mentor Sassoon, failing to conceal the huge mancrush he has on him. Their final scene together, which starts so warmly and ends in disarray, was superbly riveting throughout. Never has a ten pound note been so disappointing. In addition, I must point out that it is extraordinary how similar these three actors, when in character, resemble the vintage photographs of Rivers, Sassoon and Owen themselves. Quite remarkable! I was also really impressed with Jack Monaghan as Billy Prior, his working class accent standing out like a sore thumb against those of the officer class with whom he is hospitalised, his war trauma deeply felt and expressed with complete conviction.
The rest of the cast are also great – I particularly liked Simon Coates’ “chastising” Dr Yealland and Lindy Whiteford’s kind and strict Sister Rogers. But the whole team give a crisp, unsettling and emotional performance. Also – a simple note of appreciation but one that is genuinely meant – I heard every word that every actor spoke. That doesn’t always happen; but when you don’t have to fight to understand what’s being said it really does enhance your enjoyment of an evening at the theatre!
On the night we went, it was followed by a Post-Show Discussion with members of the cast. Mrs C and I are happy quietly to follow such conversations rather than pitch in with any observations we might have – we know our limitations. But I was really impressed with the obviously intelligent way in which the cast have prepared for the play, their own background reading, the insights they have into their characters, their thoughts about what the play should do and how we should receive it. It’s an intelligence that really pays off on stage. This is a thought-provoking, hard-hitting and very dignified production and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to you. After Northampton it embarks on a three month-tour to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Oxford and Blackpool. Catch it if you can!
P. S. Can I also recommend you visit theatrecloud for much more information about the production? It’s an excellent additional resource!