Name a Second World War poet. Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and many others are household names from the Great War of 1914-18 but who are their counterparts from 1939-45? It’s a tough question, but
Honest, holistic and honed.
Unicorns, Almost - by award-winning playwright and BAFTA nominee Owen Sheers -
provides one answer in the form of Keith Douglas. It’s an immersive production courtesy of [email protected], at the Army Reserve Centre, East Claremont St.
Douglas was a product of Merton College, Oxford and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, although his childhood was marred by the almost permanent ill-health of his mother and the absence of his father, who had to work away from home to provide for the family and keep them from poverty, as well as the ultimate divorce of his parents. He found the love of his life at Oxford but his feelings were not fully reciprocated. Other women were never able to fill the void.
He signed up once war was declared, but his training didn’t commence until the summer of 1940. The following year he was posted to Cairo and then Palestine. He yearned for action but was stationed at the HQ behind battle lines. Without permission he drove to the conflict zone telling the Colonel there that he was under orders; a lie he got away with. He was given a squadron and a tank in time for the great battle of El Alamein. He returned to England with injuries but took part in the D-Day landings on the 6th June 1944. Three days later he fell victim to enemy fire and died at the age of twenty four.
Entering the performance is rather like accessing a grotto. A narrow corridor is lined with literature relating to the production and a collection of memorabilia and illustrations from the period. It opens into a cave-like room, completely bedecked with military paraphernalia that has elements of the battlefield combined with an operations room and a homely writing desk. The installation has been open for moving audio presentations and is permanently accessible at times outside of the performance. For the live production, it takes on an even more intense atmosphere. An evocative soundscape by Jon Nicholls is enhanced by Ben Pickersgill’s
moody lighting design that immerses us in the period and locations that Douglas would have known. The remainder of this total experience is in the hands of Dan Krikler as Keith Douglas, under the sensitive direction of John Retallack.
The script and Krikler’s performance reflect the style of Douglas’s writing; a mode of expression that Douglas described as ‘extrospective’. His technique was to write observations on events and what he saw around him rather than give vent to emotions. Krikler captures this detachment in his calm descriptions of the man’s life and reflections on the events he experienced. This intensifies the moments when he lets loose and the inner feelings finally surface, so that Douglas’ humanity, rather than his setting, becomes the focus of attention. Krikler’s style of melancholic understatement could at times perhaps be more energised, but it remains captivating throughout.
Honest, holistic and honed, Unicorns, Almost is faithful to the words of Douglas himself: "Remember me when I am dead, And simplify me when I'm dead".