Writer: Irwin Shaw
Director: Rafaella Marcus
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
In an unspecified war in the 1930s, six dead American soldiers refuse to be buried. As their fellow soldiers shovel earth over their graves, the corpses rise to their feet and they will not lie down again. This is the fascinating premise at the start of Bury The Dead, but unfortunately, once they soldiers are standing, no one, including the creative team at The Finborough, know what to do with them.
Written in 1936, and not seen in London since 1938, Irwin Shaw’s Bury The Dead comes to The Finborough as the last play in its four-year occasional series of works about, or inspired by, The First World War, THEGREATWAR100. The play’s ghostly soldiers resonate with Jeremy Deller’s soldiers in the We’re Here Because We’re Here commemoration in which 1,600 volunteers represented men who had died in The Battle of the Somme. The juxtaposition of his soldiers in places such as IKEA and Tesco worked in the memorial’s favour, resurrecting these men 100 years after they had died. However, the soldiers in Bury The Dead have a harder struggle coming to life.
Once risen, the army generals are eager to return the privates to their graves. They enlist the help of rabbis and priests, who encourage the men to do the decent thing and die properly. The generals even get the soldiers’ wives and mothers to help send these men on their way. It wouldn’t do for morale if soldiers started refusing to be buried.
There’s much to like about this production. The grave looks suitably deathly in Verity Johnson’s set which has the audience on two opposing sides, and the movement by Chi-San Howard is taut, as it has to be when they are 11 actors on the stage. However, director Rafaella Marcus has been too careful in removing this text from the shelf of forgotten plays. She treats it like a fragile antique and seems scared to give it the bounce and slapstick it needs. She plays it straight, when really it needs a burlesque approach with comedy generals and mock-heroic vicars. Ultimately, the script’s potential humour is still undiscovered, beneath too many layers of dust.
The cast work hard, but Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor work hardest in their many roles as doctors, journos, wives and mothers. Jones is particularly good in her scene with Scott Westwood, who plays a soldier whose life has been undistinguished until now. However, by this time, Marcus’ reverence for the play has resulted in an overload of saccharin.
Bury The Dead feels longer than its advertised 75 minutes, and Shaw’s soldiers have nowhere to go. As an anti-war protest, the play has some interesting ideas, especially as we approach Armistice Day. It may be a great play, but in this production Bury The Dead is only an inexpensive curio.
Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander