DramaLondonReview

For King and Country – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: John Wilson

Director: Paul Tomlinson

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

As we approach the centenary of the end of World War I, events commemorating the Great War continue. This latest, a revival of John Wilson’s play For King and Country by Dilated Theatre Company, is unusual in that it marks more than anything how the young men on the front could find themselves let down by the army who depended upon them.

Save for a few, brief interstitial scenes which capitalise on Jacqueline Gunn’s set design and Robbie Butler’s lighting to offer a glimpse of the brutality and noise of life in the trenches, the play concentrates on a court case. Private Arthur Hamp, a young infantryman who has served on the front lines fo petty much all of the war’s four years, is facing court-martial for desertion. Ten days after nearly drowning in mud after an explosion propelled him into a foxhole, he walked away from Passchendaele and kept going until being arrested trying to arrange passage back to England.

Adam Lawrence’s Hamp is a simplistic soul, not quite articulate enough to explain to anyone’s satisfaction why he deserted, nor seemingly able to comprehend the possibility that he may be executed if found guilty. The advocate assigned to argue his case in the court martial, Lloyd Everitt’s Lieutenant Hargreaves, believes Hamp may be suffering from shell shock – what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder. Hamp, Hargreaves argues, has been injured in battle, and as such the army has a duty of care.

But despite shell shock being a recognised diagnosis by this point in the war, the difficulty in obtaining recognition for the condition is laid out in stark contrast by the courtroom testimony of Andrew Cullum’s splenetic medical officer. After the briefest of consultations, Hamp was despatched back to duty with a prescription of nothing more than laxatives. Cullum’s anger at the thought that soldiers’ mental health might need caring for – if that were the case, he sputters, they would have no soldiers left – is one of the play’s many superbly realised moments.

And yet elsewhere, compassion is very much in evidence. Lawrence’s open-faced honesty is perfect for Hamp, who is treated sympathetically by the very same soldiers he walked away from. And while Everitt, who at least in the first act has a tendency to trip over his lines, robbing them of some of their compassion, starts off defending Hamp from a sense of duty to the law, by the time the verdict comes he is not the only person who is hopeful of a ruling of not guilty.

And yet despite the enormity of the potential sentence hanging over Hamp’s head, the most affecting moments of the second act come as the senior officers face the prospect of having to carry out an execution by firing squad if he is found guilty. The justification for such a sentence, we are repeatedly told, is to stop the spread of desertion, as if vaccinating against infection. It becomes clear, though, that the act of ending someone’s life because their mental health made them unable to fight would do more to deter Hamp’s colleagues from believing in the fight than letting him live ever could.

The closing half of Act II is dominated by a powerfully poignant performance by Eugene Simon as the fresh-faced Padre who struggles to find a faith-based reason for what the Army may be considering, but whose presence and compassion seem to imbue those around him with strength.

As Wilson’s play marches towards what feels like an inevitable conclusion, one hopes for the sort of twist that befit the modern courtroom drama, some last-minute reprieve that would see justice being done rather than law being seen to be done. That sliver of hope, the collectively held breath of an audience willing on both Hamp and his superiors, is the sign of a well-executed drama.

Continues until 21 July 2018 | Image: Alex Brenner

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