“There must be no squeamishness over losses”
In the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War, many a theatre has programmed accordingly but few can lay as effective a tribute as the Theatre Royal Stratford East with their revival of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War which premiered here a little over 50 years ago. The play came in for some stick from that enlightened soul Michael Gove who denounced its political revisionism (and gave it a healthy dose of publicity to boot) but in the final moments of this emotionally exhausting show, only the most totally deluded of fools would have politics on their mind in the face of such unutterable loss of life, something that continues in battlefields today.
There is no denying that the show wears its politics clearly on its sleeve. Devised by Littlewood and Theatre Workshop in the 1960s, its depiction of the class lines within the armed forces speak firmly of its time, and it is interesting to see how the American efforts are viewed at a time before any “special relationships” had been forged. But truly at its heart is the experience of the ordinary soldier and Lez Brotherston’s design never lets us free of the unflinching barrage of information and imagery – projections simulate what life might have been life, a constantly scrolling panel of statistics keep the human cost at the front of our minds.
The show itself uses the device of a pierrot entertainment full of music and sketches to both undercut and counterpoint expectations – evoking the correct period sensibility and offering a unique commentary on the action. This bracingly satirical format is powerful but does feel a little too weighted at times and occasionally is rushed in the hectic pace of Terry Johnson’s production. It is much more effective in the quieter, stiller moments – the Christmas Eve truce with its refrain of ‘Stille Nacht’ and subsequent bawdy response; Caroline Quentin’s bone-chilling music hall recruitment number; Michael Simkins’ aristo unable to admit how thoroughly out of his depth he is.
The jab at Gove that comes in the prologue is wryly done and one wonders if his reaction would remain the same if he were to actually see the production and see that whilst his comments may not have been necessarily 100% off the mark, there is so much more that is vital and important to Oh What A Lovely War than whether the finger of blame should be pointed here or there.