In A Nutshell
A most provocative and powerful account of pacifism in the extreme, combined with a stark reminder of the human horrors of the First World War.
Pip was sent to the French trenches during the First World War. However, he is a pacifist and is imprisoned as a “conscientious objector”. He is locked up in a barn with another “conchy”, Moon: an Irish boy suffering from severe shell-shock. As the war rages on and his sentence approaches, Pip not only makes unexpected friends and starts small personal revolutions in the people he meets, but he has his stance on pacifism pushed to an absolute extreme at the hands of a sadistic fellow soldier.
Max Saunders Singer makes his playwriting debut, after his artistic input in RIP and his award nominated performance in Mojo. For a piece that is a first attempt, it’s pretty damn impressive.
Particularly, Saunders Singer’s handling of narrative development is the play’s strongest point. Rather than delivering a piece that comfortably praises and skims through pacifism as an ideology, he takes the time to question it’s appropriateness by testing the character to the very limits. Although the action itself is shocking, at the same time he provides a brutal but balanced examination of pacifism that is engrossing. Likewise, Pip as a character that is incredibly deep, adding intrigue to what Saunders Singer puts him through. Devoutly religious, but with the suggestion of a much darker past, Pip is far from a textbook Figure A, prompting more questions than we would usually end up asking ourselves about his stance.
Other characters in the play are well thought out and well placed catalysts the move this dramatic discussion forward. From the connection he builds with Sergeant Harper, to the stinging rebuffs of his proud Captain brother; everything lifts and colours Pip as a character and complicates his ideals.
Furthermore, Saunders Singer is unflinching in his portrayal of the violence of The Great War. There are some incredibly violent and unsavoury scenes, but everything always feels organic rather than gratuitous, especially as a tool to put pacifism under the microscope. If we’re asked to never forget their sacrifices, this is a stark and important reminder of what it was they went through, without sensationalism or exaggeration.
The only, and somewhat small, problem with the writing is pacing: there are points where the action drags a little too much. It’s very difficult to get pacing right in a play like this as, given the intensity of the action and the subject explored, the audience tend to tire very quickly emotionally and physically and thus don’t fancy hanging around much. Saunders Singer has gone for a more naturalistic dialogue and pace which, whilst creates an organic sense of scene, creates too much of a lull in the action meaning you lose attention a little.[youtube http://youtu.be/8Y5-Z8szMfg]
Production and Direction
This is by far some of the most impressive production values I’ve seen on the fringe, no doubt in thanks to the show’s Kickstarter patrons. DoBo Designs’ set is an incredibly impressive cross section of an old barn, with splintered wood, cobwebs, and rusting farm tools to boot. There are umpteen other little touches as well, from wet mist pouring from the shell hole in the roof, to realistic doves, and the most gruesome things a butcher can provide in lieu of actual human torture. The level of detail is phenomenal and really adds to lift the horrific reality of the piece.
Sebastien Blanc, rejoining Saunders Singer after their last partnership in Mojo, also superbly directs the piece. There is always something going on in the fringes of the set, to add a living sense of reality to the scenes. But despite this constant nature, Blanc ensures that nothing unintentionally distracts whilst ensuring the space where the main events take place in a scene gives room for it to develop and breathe, despite the limited space it takes place in. Teaming up with fight director Matt Gardener, the stage becomes a brutal and slickly executed powder-keg that lights Saunders Singer’s intent.
You couldn’t ask for a more phenomenal cast. Although there are the usual misgivings of a writer being involved in the acting (usually, one of those, if not both, suffers), Saunders Singer makes sure that his recent nomination was not something thrust upon him without merit. His performance is an affectionate and empathetic one which captivates the audience through and through, most likely coming from the fact that he intrinsically knows Pip as a person through having written him. Simon Naylor is also fantastic as Sergeant Harper, and confidently charts the journey from bullish authority to a man crumbling from the weight of guilt and uncertainty, with nuance and respect.
Sam Adamson, however, fresh out of training with this being his first professional role, is astonishing, giving an uncomfortable and harrowing visceral performance as shell-shocked Moon. The energy and dedication to every flinch and fit is extraordinary, augmenting the utter heartbreak of his character’s demise. John Askew as Private Blythe, the piece’s antagonist, is also as evil and maniacal as they come; out-rightly one of the most despicable and dangerous villains I’ve ever witnessed to have graced the stage. He’s enraging and ghastly to watch to the point it’s a little worrying that he can so agilely and naturally portray such sick and craven masochist!
Horrifying and immensely provocative, this is a WWI centenary play that has an intelligence and power beyond expectations. A show that shreds heartstrings and decimates sensibilities, it’s theatre at it’s most outstanding.[youtube http://youtu.be/B7i5uTXC7Lc]
The Glasshouse plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 22 November 2014. Tickets are £16 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.