Stephen MacDonald’s deeply moving portrait of the friendship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen beautifully reveals how their World War I poetry completely reflected their own personalities. 

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What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons.No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, 1917)

Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is just one of many poems by him and Siegfried Sassoon to be expertly interwoven into this powerfully moving play by Stephen MacDonald, brought vividly to life in Tim Baker’s production.

Not About Heroes focuses on the growing friendship between the two renowned World War I poets and the way their horror of the war that they find themselves caught up in is reflected in such striking contrast through their poetry. The play fully captures just how Owen’s sensitivity and awareness of how the world has been changed through the devastation of war offers a completely different tone and perspective to Sassoon’s anger and passion for what the war has led to.

Stephen MacDonald’s play handles the subject of World War I with great sensitivity but also highlights the devastation and impact war had on those fighting in it. It is the little moments within that make the most impact – in particular seeing Sassoon’s shock, devastation and anger when Wilfred reveals he plans on returning to the front is a convincingly heartbreaking watch as well as initially seeing Wilfred’s struggle with PTSD.

Through Tim Baker’s subtle but thoughtful production, the audience gets a real sense of just how broken these two men are by the war and can only seek true solace in their poetry – with Wilfred being expertly guided by Siegfried in his writing. It is the moments in which they both express pleasure in each other’s writing, with traces of humour and self-doubt that the production really shines, showing great depth and understanding into these two great poets minds.

The production is also strong in the way in which it captures the strength of the bond between Sassoon and Owen that hints at something stronger than the bond of friendship but without directly expressing it – beautifully portrayed by Daniel Llewelyn Williams as Sassoon and Owain Gwynn as Owen. Williams as Sassoon is abrupt and angry on the surface, but he also reveals a great depth and understanding for Sassoon’s background that is reflected well throughout. As much of the time the story of their friendship is seen through Sassoon’s eyes and memory, the way in which he delivers his lines is bittersweet and poignant – particularly as he reads over some of Wilfred’s old letters. In contrast to this Gwynn as Wilfred Owen captures the poet’s sensitive personality while highlighting his knack for focusing on even the smallest details to make an impact – his devotion and admiration of Sassoon is never in doubt – perfectly captured when during the scene in which they meet for the first time.

Combine the  performances with Oliver Harman’s beautifully split stage design (transporting the audience between the hospital and the battlefield) that is wonderfully creative and the atmospheric lighting  by Kevin Heyes, it is a touching and heartwarming portrait of these two poets that emerges.

There are moments which do tend to feel rushed and at times the conversations can come across as slightly repetitive – particularly with regards to their self-doubts about how good their poetry really is that aren’t necessary in places.

But overall, through combining their poetry with their friendship, the audience is left with a deeper and richer understanding of just how much their poetry revealed about the way in which they saw the war and in turn how much it reveals about them as people. A powerful production and highly recommended.

By Emma Clarendon 

Not About Heroes continues to play at the Wilton’s Music Hall until the 11th November. For more information visit: https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/472-not-about-heroes-by-stephen-macdonald

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐