11th November 2014. It’s Armistice Day – exactly 96 years since the signing of the treaty that ended the long and tired Great War. And here we are, in the Studio of Bristol Old Vic, watching a show about Everyman enlisting to fight in France, to smile for his country, to extinguish the enemy.
This year has seen the centenary of the start of that war and the commemorations have been necessarily relentless. Necessary not for the celebrations of ‘our’ so-called victory but for that reminder of the futility of war, for all those lost men, born in so many countries. For the remembrance of a burden placed heavily upon young shoulders, encouraged to stand for their nation in the place of bureaucrats and landlords.
War Game heightens not only that sense of pointless loss and grief but makes us realise that it all could have been very different for millions of people. And for a few hundred soldiers, a few months in, for a few hours, it was.
1914. Will is a Suffolk country boy; his only real, yet playful, beef is with the neighbouring village’s football team. Football is his passion, you see, and one day he will play for England. And then, suddenly, enlisting with his pals, Will goes off to faraway France for ‘an adventure,’ which, everyone says, will be over be Christmas anyway! Will travels through a land that looks the same as the one he just left, cheered on by English and then French folk, who line the streets to pass food and love to the young men.
And then it all changes …
We have seen a good few one-actor shows this year but the team effort in this production may well beat them all into the ground.
Robin Hemmings as Will instantly drums up a friendship with us, playing with an invisible but very real football and leading us back to that Suffolk village 100 years ago. Everything is familiar yet strange at the same time, to us and to Will, giving a dreamlike quality that informs us where we are and what we might expect, each layer unravelling as we go. But we’re never entirely sure because boyish, upbeat Will isn’t either.
Hemmings is expert in leading us through a few months of his life, as he introduces us to his mates, to Kitchener, to his superior and, finally, to his brand new buddy, Hans the German, with whom he strikes up a bond on the famous Christmas day football match in No-Man’s Land.
We, the audience, are truly part of this production – the creative team have made sure of that. On stage, alongside Will, sits a very 21st Century Rebecca (Becky) Marie Loxton, Stage Manager. Equipped with her macbook and software, Becky records us cheering, looping our voices so that we become the crowd on Will’s journey. We sing a very well know war song and then, on Christmas Day 1914, a day that you feel had the potential to change the world forever, we join forces in an international Christmas carol. For a very short, beautiful moment, the past and present intermingle: enemies become friends; horror, joy: despair, hope … war, peace.
Adapted from Michael Foreman illustrated book for young readers, the set of War Game is a wall of bandages, at times acting as the trenches, through which Will can access any number of props, though it must be said that the most impressive props are those we can’t see, those that we must imagine. Some of the audience are invited to play with the invisible ball, shoot an illusory gun. We are IN this uplifting yet ultimitely terrifying story.
Along with his team, Toby Hulse, as Director, has done a superb job in sharing his love of fusing naturalism with the unexpected, creating a powerful piece of Brechtian theatre that will stay with us.
My 8 year old, as ever, asked lots of questions. Another one-man show, another piece about war, another sublime production. She hasn’t yet said much but I reckon that, for an hour there, as with all those school children who attended performances earlier in the day, she was propelled into a world of certainty and, at the same time, of what ifs. Through War Game, the fragility of history touches all of us. And so it should.
War Game is a heart-warming, upbeat story of any soldier who ever stood in a trench. For love of humanity and the joy of going to the theatre, this one is a must!
War Game shows at Old Vic until 22nd November
– Review by Becky Condron