Writer: Nicholas Wright, adapted from the books by Pat Barker
Director: Simon Godwin
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The First World War was an especially brutal one; a brutality that now, a hundred years later, it is difficult to imagine or comprehend. It is also the first time that what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was recognised as shellshock. The need for bodies at the front was so acute that the aim in treating any soldiers suffering from shellshock focused on getting them back to the front as soon as possible rather than on their own well-being. The misunderstanding of what constitutes shellshock, including a belief that men with it were malingerers, led to what now appear as barbaric practices. In one memorable scene, a doctor, chillingly played by Simon Coates, uses electric shocks applied to the tongue and throat to enable a mute to speak again. He explains that the usual techniques, including cigarette burns to the tongue, have failed. No wonder then that this audience watched that scene in a fascinated but shocked silence.
But there were also enlightened men. We meet Captain Rivers, a psychoanalyst of the Freudian school at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Here the regime is more caring and supportive and the officers we meet are encouraged to talk about their experiences and symptoms. And this ‘talking cure’ was remarkably successful. Regeneration, based in part on Rivers’ own notes, tells the story of this hospital and some of those within it. One of the ways that we can get some idea of the horrors of the trenches is from the writings of the war poets who eschewed cosy metaphor and jingoism to describe, in graphic terms, just what was going on. Two of these, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both found themselves at Craiglockhart: Owen has been diagnosed with shellshock, Sassoon has written his famous soldier’s declaration in which he declares himself ‘finished with the war’. With nowhere else to send him, the authorities find him a place at Craiglockhart. It transpires, of course, that he also is genuinely a sufferer, with hallucinations reminding him of his time in France.
The men in Regeneration are complex characters. In trying to describe their complexity, the first half is played out as a series of vignettes, which can make it difficult to get to grips with the range of characters and their experiences. However, the focus shifts to Rivers, Owen, Sassoon and the fictional Billy Prior. All are affected by the war; all are conflicted about their attitude to it – Sassoon in particular seems to relish danger; there is a hint of survivor guilt about all of them. There is also the unstated but very real depth of affection between Owen and Sassoon that grows quickly from Owen’s hero-worship of Sassoon. One audience member called it a ‘bromance’, but Wright and Barker show it as much deeper than that.
Stephen Boxer plays Rivers. A careworn man, we see his inner turmoil and despair at the work he is doing. He gives Rivers a gentleness and compassion, making him entirely believable and, even, inspirational. Boxer’s performance makes it clear why Sassoon should see him as a father figure and come tovdepend so much on him. Tim Delap is Sassoon. He portrays the many contradictions in Sassoon’s character and needs extremely well. And newcomer Garmon Rhys is Owen the fresh-faced, hero-worshipper initially in awe of Sassoon. He looks and sounds the part as he grows in maturity. Most striking is perhaps Jack Monaghan’s Billy Prior – a bluff northerner, who lives life in a very matter-of-fact way but still somehow finds himself in Craiglockhart. Monaghan brings just the right level of cynicism to the rôle. Indeed, all the characters burst into three dimensions – there is no weak link or lazy characterisation to be seen.
The short, almost cinematic, scenes are aided by the stark, claustrophobic, monochrome set of Alex Eales. Cleverly designed with large folding doors giving out onto a separate space upstage, we are transported effortlessly between locations such as Rivers’ office, the dining room and Sassoon’s room. Atmospheric, understated music from Stuart Earl seeps into our subconscious generating the mood. All the designers have done sterling work.
Perhaps it is the desire to distil three novels into a single play that is the root of the play’s one weakness – that of being a bit disconnected at the outset before really finding its feet, memorably just before the interval and throughout the second act. It then carries one along to the end we all know is coming.
Regeneration is a new way, to our eyes, of seeing the war and its impact on a generation of young men. Not always easy to watch, it nevertheless is a powerful piece of theatre which will repay the effort. Highly recommended.
Photo: Manuel Harlan | Runs until: 8th November and on tour