Review: For King and Country, Southwark Playhouse

For King and Country at the Southwark Playhouse proves an ineffective revival in this centenary year of  WWI’s end

“It’s a bit amateur to plead for justice”

Belatedly, I found out that this play hasn’t been performed in London for 30-odd years and in this case, it is tempting to say you can see why. The intent behind John Wilson’s 1963 play For King and Country is certainly honorable, a courtroom drama about a WWI soldier who deserted his post. And Dilated Theatre’s production at the Southwark Playhouse has merit, the idea that it might serve as an investigation into the issues that we now label as PTSD.

But a contemporary lens reflects harshly on the play, particularly through the prism of the writer’s decade. Watching his interpretation of what happened with our current knowledge of war’s psychological impact doesn’t feel like the most effective tribute to our armed forces as we commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. My mind constantly wondered why we weren’t hearing either a) a fresh new piece of writing or b) something more historically direct.

As it is, the story of Private Hamp, a young man who after four long years on the battlefield, simply leaves the field after the Battle of Passchendaele. Caught at Calais and court-martialed for desertion, Wilson details the judicial process around the decision to send him to the firing squad. There’s an inkling that there’s a defence in the diminished capacity of his mental state but largely it is about the top brass’ determination to close ranks, stifle any further dissent, maintain a propriety in spite of the war-ravaged time.

Paul Tomlinson’s production is proficiently done, but rarely stirred my soul if I’m completely honest. Battle montages inbetween scenes tested my patience and Jacqueline Gunn’s design allows a few too many modern details to creep in. And an overall tip to the melodramatic in some of the performances further pushes the feel away from period accuracy. Stick with Journey’s End I think.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Alex Brenner
For King and Country is booking at the Southwark Playhouse until 21st July

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