Yesterday I was pleased to join the Rusters’ outing to the Minerva at the Chichester Festival Theatre preceded by a very pleasant and lively lunch at Murray’s at the back of The Ship in North Street – especially since, when the expedition was first mooted, and ironically in view of my interest in WW1 – I had not ‘twigged’ that we would be attending a performance of Mark Hayhurst’s First Light just two days prior to the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Battle of The Somme on 1st July 1916.
A day after attending said matinee my reflections upon it remain middling.
The ‘WW1 research industry’ is an incestuous world in which dedicated website chat-rooms will forever remain full of researchers and academics (both professional and amateur) scoring points against each other on the obsessions as to, for example, which unit and month of which year can be identified by the arrangement of a certain soldier’s sleeve buttons or cap design in a photograph, or whether a particular trench was eight or fifteen metres to the left of a specific landmark, and as I write I do not feel a particular need or inclination ‘to go there’.
From my perspective as an occasional author of matters WW1 I could quibble or comment upon the authenticity of some details of First Light – the dialogue, the relationship between the soldiers and their officers for example – but generally, for the benefit of a 21st Century audience, I was suitably impressed by the staging, sets and period details of the props that had been researched and presented.
Rather, and conscious here that I’m moving onto topics for which my expertise may be found lacking in comparison to my peers who have make it their business, I wish to concentrate upon my impressions of the afternoon as a theatrical experience.
There is only so much that you can achieve in bringing to the stage a play a mere couple of hours’ length that seeks to bring history to life. Arguably it is impossible. For the sake of the piece, the course of events and/or evolving human emotions and relationships may have to be condensed in time duration from months (or even years) into half an hour of acting, or even two paragraphs in the same speech.
Thus a false impression is given, or rather one that can lead the audience one way or another that may or may not have been intended by the author.
As a piece of live acted drama, for me, First Light’s balance between strengths and weaknesses just about evened itself out.
Generally I found the acting excellent – particularly that of both the ‘condemned men‘ (Tom Gill as Private Albert Ingham and David Moorst as Private Alfred Longshaw) and Andrew Woodall as Major General Shea, the epitome of one of the supposed donkeys from the iconic but dismissive description of WW1 military tactics [invented if not copyrighted by political/writer Alan Clark] ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.
However, aspects of the relationships between the characters seemed ‘not of their time’ to me – part of which can no doubt be put down to the previously-mentioned time pressures of theatre drama and the need to ‘connect’ with modern audiences.
In his exchanges with those in authority, campaigning on behalf of his son – or was it on behalf of himself? – George Ingham (father of one of the executed) was less respectful and far more abrupt than would have been the case in reality.
The condemned men’s lieutenant (Lieutenant Jennings, played by Sam Phillips) was another stereotypical figure. In most of his speeches he tended to declaim in the style of theatrical knights Donald Woolfit or John Gielgud – I’m referring to dialogue here rather than exaggerated manner – as indeed did the character of Alfred Longshaw in some of his ‘major’ speeches.
To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday’s ‘play outing’, an activity that I experience far less than in days of yore a fact that is to my loss, not that of the theatre.
The truth is that writing for the theatre is a craft that, when executed well and allied to great production and acting, can produce magical results. Yesterday I was never quite became ‘lost’ in the moment, but spent my time more observing the craft at work and trying to judge which aspects in my opinion worked and which were perhaps not so successful in terms of how they came across to the onlooker.
I’d place the result down this time as a ‘score draw’.