Many appreciate conscientious objectors because they seem on the right side of history. Because war’s pointless, isn’t it? Many British appreciate Muhammad Ali for spurning Vietnam; but could an audience appreciate the conscious objectors (C.O.’s) of the Great War? It seems even taboo to say it. WWI is part of British cultural identity; history lessons have taught us to accept its causes without heed. As a country we respect that war to no end, so we look on its C.O.’s with scorn - at least prima facie.
This Evil Thing is too plodding to be the awe-inspiring exposé it’d love to be.
Michael Mears seeks to challenge that. He’s laying out the pacifist movement with a swathe of figures including Bertrand Russell and the little-known John Hubert Brocklesby. The arguments are elucidated and there’s precious precision: he notes the movement had a different, inchoate life before conscription in 1916. It’s these subtleties that make the show play out like a warm BBC documentary.
Warming that documentary style is Mears, a genial performer with the horsepower of a Porsche when he’s driving the good parts of his show. Breaking down and reconstructing a set of wooden crates, the man’s going at it with such gusto you think he’d topple over any second. The control of his own work is staunch; even when rushing here and there he maintains poise, flitting between parts with ease from Brocklesby to a ruminating Russell.
Like so much historical drama in the 2016 Fringe, the self-written script is, while specific, deathly intent of covering too much in too little time. The Russell sections shine - he being an intellectual giant facing off against the prime minister and cronies - and the other sections shimmer in quieter ways, but together they become a vastly overstuffed 85 minutes. It drags and dulls when the C.O. movement’s development comes to a creaking halt via incarceration, turning one-note. The BBC style ceases then and the show begins to resemble a pallid textbook you’d find on some woebegotten library shelf.
It’s hard not to care for Mears. His energy and choice of subject deserve respect. The scene between Herbert Henry Asquith and Russell is a properly dazzling bit of tension. Nothing matches that encounter, though. For all the moments of revelation, This Evil Thing is too plodding to be the awe-inspiring exposé it’d love to be.