It tells the story of Craiglockhart Hospital which was used for a period during the war to treat shell shocked officers and the pioneering “talking cure” of Dr William Rivers, social anthropologist and psychoanalyst. We meet two of his most famous real life patients – the war poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as fictional characters such as Billy Prior, a working class officer. Not having read the novel or seen the 1997 film version, I can’t say whether this play adequately represents its contents but inevitably a two hour dramatized adaptation isn’t going to be able to include everything, but there is certainly a lot of material covered here. It focuses on Rivers and his treatment methods, on the horrors of war and the failure of the establishment to acknowledge its human cost and impact, and on the relationship forged between Owen and Sassoon. Indeed there are possibly too many different stories running throughout and it might have been better to focus more fully on one of them.
The patients in the bare and soulless hospital are traumatised by their dreadful experiences in the trenches and suffer flashbacks and hallucinations. Rivers works with them to gradually bring out their repressed emotions and horrific memories so that they can come to terms with them and move forward. His caring approach contrasts with that of his colleague Dr Yealland who considers them to be cowards and malingerers and uses brutal electric shock treatment to make them speak. The methods may differ but the aim is the same – to get the men fit enough to return to the front line. In the meantime, Owen and Sassoon’s friendship blossoms but here too there is emotional repression and feelings left unexpressed. What it does produce is a wonderful legacy of poetry including Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth which Sassoon helped to revise. “No mockeries now for them; no prayers or bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells…”.
There are fine performances from Stephen Boxer as Rivers, Tim Delap as Sassoon, Garmon Rhys as Owen and Jack Monaghan as Prior, and Simon Godwin’s direction is faultless. I’ve seen a few very different productions covering WW1 already this year and this one gives yet another perspective and insight. I will also be adding the novel to my list to see if the play fully does it justice.