The centenary commemorations of the First World War ending, held in 2018, ensured that it was once again in the consciousness of the nation, putting the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, into focus. Using the title The Unknown Soldier takes us to that era, in this play set two years after the ceasefire.
There are some stand-out moments in the play, and some of the writing is pure poetry
Enveloped by the sound of rain we meet Jack in his makeshift room: he volunteered to stay on; he has a job to do. He talks to his best friend, in direct address to the audience, while taking his jacket off and his boots and his puttees, which he rolls carefully and puts into his boots. The set wonderfully represents the era: bed and stove and box with items on. As he talks he rolls his cigarettes for the next day, drinks a curiously homemade looking spirit and eats from a canteen tin. It’s pleasing to see such authenticity and detail in the set design which was still simple and appropriately sparse.
There is no doubt that this has been researched and fact-checked and the addition of personal material is a really lovely touch. However, some things have fallen through the check. When a production has made such an effort in authenticity and fact, when something isn’t quite right, it does stand out. Such is the section about the white headstones of dead soldiers, and while that is of course true now, it wasn’t true in 1920. They were only just starting to ship out headstones at that time so it was little crosses marking the buried dead before then. Another issue is spending most of his time in socks with no shoes which would not have happened as the floor would have been wet and muddy, even in the room; plus the socks didn’t look right with the rest of the ensemble. Socks were famously an issue for that time as was ‘trench foot’. Soldiers changed their socks often, but would be back in their boots. Depending on your knowledge of the First World War, these small details can either be ignored or be jarring.
There are some stand-out moments in the play, and some of the writing is pure poetry: 'bodies coming apart like … wet paper' while grim is wonderfully evocative, as he talks about dredging dead soldiers from water filled shell-holes. The story itself is a beautiful one of friendship, loyalty and love between brothers in arms, and as the scenes unfold he is talking to his best friend, his best man, the one who rescued him from the battlefield when he was wounded. The whole piece is very moving and powerful, yet in some places it seems too much, a little as if designed to extract a shocking and sad emotional response: such as the scene where he is fighting and killing the enemy. There are some interesting choices, such as performing the whole piece in a very strong accent, not his natural voice; there were moments where it didn’t seem quite right. That said, listening to the experiences of one soldier in the First World War is fascinating.
Jack, boldly and fiercely played by writer Ross Ericson, makes some thoughtful observations, such as the German soldier he met who used to live in England fairly close to him, and that they could have been friends until 'somebody told us we weren’t'. There were so many Germans living in England at the time, as the nations had been friends. This is very important and was an experience that so many shared, as is the incredibly powerful and thought-provoking observations he makes about the soldier heroes’ return to Blighty: that dead heroes don’t have a voice or a history, the only land for heroes is six feet down; and the clean slate of the Unknown Soldier, that we’ll never forget him, because there’s nobody to remember.
There is much to admire about this production and to take away and ruminate over. That these stories continue to be told is very important indeed.