Tony Harrison’s play is pretty hard going but once it focuses on the central story, it becomes an fascinating insight into the devastating impact that weapons of mass destruction have had on humanity.
Weapons of mass destruction have had a huge impact on humanity across the centuries and Tony Harrison highlights this with flair as he examines the attitudes of those who created such weapons such as Sir Hiram Maxim inventor of the machine gun and Fritz Haber’s poisonous gas that would go on to destroy his own people in the Holocaust.
For this revival, Jimmy Walters has created a lively production that captures the messages of Harrison’s uniquely styled play and features some flamboyant performances from the all female cast.
But as the show begins, initially it doesn’t seem all that promising. There is far too much silliness in its approach of what the play is essentially about that it comes across as lacking in clarity and purpose. The early scenes where the women (set in 1915) are working in the factories taking over the jobs of men during the war to then decide to take this a step further and decide to play some of the inventors of modern technological warfare themselves – just don’t seem to make sense.
However, this slowly changes as the audience begin to get an understanding of why these inventors decided to create machine guns or chlorine gas (mainly for the purpose of ‘protecting’ humanity rather than destroying it). Square Rounds shows how this decision making was flawed and how the use of weapons of mass destruction is still impacting on society around the world today in all sorts of conflicts.
There are many good speeches throughout Square Rounds that highlight the horror of what these creations could cause, written as rhythmic poetry that beautifully translates into the performances and capturing the audience’s attention effectively. In particular, the many conversations between Fritz Haber and his wife Clara are powerful and moments that show the potential serious consequences of what Haber has created even as he stubbornly says “problems can be solved with a scientific mind”.
However, some of the speeches can feel slightly heavy handed – particularly when it comes to the science behind it all. It is fascinating but it can make the pace of the story slow down and make it frustrating in places to watch – particularly during the science lesson routine.
The play is filled with fascinating characters such as Justus Von Liebig and Sir William Crooks. But while their contribution is noted it seems that they are dismissed too quickly. In this instance it feels as though it would have been better if the play had exclusively concentrated on the work of Fritz Haber, Sir Hiram Maxim and Hudson Maxim and the impact that their inventions had on World War I.
While the play itself is in need of some editing, the performances in this production are strong. In particular Philippa Quinn as Fritz Haber is splendid in highlighting his own obsession with his invention and the idea it will prevent further harm to humanity. Quinn manages to capture his eccentricities with ease but also a sense of vulnerability as he soon realises the horror of what he has created in a moving scene towards the end of the show. Meanwhile, Gracy Goldman makes for a strongly charismatic Clara – her frustration and worry always reflected well and the only character who doesn’t feel exaggerated.
There is no denying the importance of Square Rounds, particularly in 2018 in which it serves as a suitable warning. However, it feels as though it is trying to be two different things – entertainingly eccentric or a powerful anti-war piece and these two conflicting approaches don’t blend well together coherently.
By Emma Clarendon
Square Rounds continues to play at the Finborough Theatre until the 29th September. For more information visit: https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/square-rounds.php