In this centenary year of World War One, I felt it would be appropriate to include one of the many shows in this year’s Fringe and Festival which cover this subject. I chose this one as I was attracted by the fact that it was to be performed by Guy Masterson, a stalwart supporter of the Fringe who has directed and performed in many successful productions over the last twenty one years.
The proposition is a simple one – Masterson is alone on an empty stage with a large folder full of poems, stories and letters written by the men who fought in and experienced the horrors of war and many of whom lost their lives there.
However this is not simply a reading of these works – Masterson is an accomplished actor and from the outset, he brings the words and scenes alive to us in a most moving and powerful way. With effective lighting and a background soundtrack of machine gun fire, we are conveyed to the trenches and we can almost see the battlefield and feel the fear and helplessness.
There are poems from well-known British war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brook, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, writings from the German side such as Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and lesser known works such as the heartbreaking poem by Irishman Thomas Kettle “To My Daughter Betty, Gift of God”. Knowing he will not come back from the war and knowing he will be vilified by some for fighting for the British, he writes a farewell to her and to tell her why he and others like him died: “they died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, but for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed and for the secret Scripture of the poor”.
It is not all relentless doom and gloom – there are a couple of lighter hearted pieces on the banter between the two sides at the Christmas truce and on the ingenious methods employed by the men against the problem of body lice.
Always, though, there is the constant and underlying presence of danger, death and dying. This is a poignant reminder of what others suffered and endured for us and the warning against glorification of war that is Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a fitting way to finish.