WW1 on Stage – The Wipers Times

A review of the New Wolsey Theatre matinee performance, 9th November 2016

Official poster for the play

Official poster for the play

The Wipers Times is a new play (based the TV drama of the same name) created by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman and apart from calling it a wonderful watch putting into words what I saw on the stage is proving very difficult.

The original Wipers Time newspaper was the brainchild of two officers serving on the front-line who realised that perhaps the best way to survive the horrors of the war was to do so by making them comical.  Their newspaper was written and printed by men actually serving in the trenches rather than those sitting behind desks behind the lines or back in Blighty. It was a firm favourite with the men and and a thorn in the side of those officers bravely fighting the war from their desks a long way from any bombs…

The comic scenes of the men writing the articles (these would start by simply being read and turn into action scenes upstage or shown as full vaudeville acts) were interspersed with scenes from behind the lines in staff HQ, the men on leave in France and the bittersweet moments of home leave or letters.  Then there were also the scenes of the men in the trenches waiting for the big pushes – the Somme and 3rd Battle of Ypres for example.

I found the play managed to show the absurdities and horrors of war very effectively without ever feeling as if it was playing with my emotions, it was sad at times but overall very uplifting.

I’ve seen the play described as a cross between Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh! What a Lovely War but I did also see a hint of Journey’s End in there – it wasn’t all comedy.

Some of the lines, puns and jokes were terrible and were signposted a mile off but these weren’t necessarily the lines from Hislop and Newman and neither were the lines about press accuracy interestingly enough.

What I found the most interesting about this play however was how much the later World War One satires such as Blackadder owed to the Wipers Times even if this was unintentional and they knew nothing about the paper.

All of the original editions of the Wipers Times newspaper were reprinted in a facsimile edition and you can borrow this from Norfolk’s Libraries but I really do hope that this play will return to the stage soon – it has an important story to tell.

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T E Lawrence and his legacy on stage pt. 1

Lawrence After Arabia, a new play by Howard Brenton

lawrence-after-arabia

T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, has been mythologized greatly since the end of WW1 and with the 100th anniversary of the Arab Revolt being marked 2016 seems to be ‘his’ year.

I was lucky enough to attend the second preview of this new play about Lawrence and I really enjoyed it.

While the play is actually set in the early 1920s a lot of the story is told in flash back and centres on Lawrence’s involvement with the aforementioned Arab Revolt.

The play itself was a simple story and although it imparted a lot of information about Arabia in WW1 I didn’t feel like I was attending a lecture and I thought that the foreshadowing of how events in 1916 still influence life in 2016 were very well handled.

Sadly the play has finished its run in London now, but I hope that it transfers or tours soon as I’d certainly like to see it again. The play script is available to buy and make a great read and of course there are plenty of books on Lawrence of Arabia published – many of which can be borrowed from Norfolk’s libraries.

Jack Laskey (T E Lawrence) and Khalid Laith (Prince Feisal) in Lawrence After Arabia by Howard Brenton @ Hampstead Theatre. Directed by John Dove.
©Tristram Kenton 05/16
tristram@tristramkenton.com

War horses

I recently enjoyed a wonderful birthday treat – a trip to London to see a performance of War Horse, which has inspired me to write an item for our blog about horses in World War 1.

war-horse-at-the-new-london-theatre-photo-by-brinkhoff-mc3b6genburg-946-022.jpg

war-horse-at-the-new-london-theatre-photo-by-brinkhoff-mc3b6genburg-946-022.jpg

The theatre programme contains lots of interesting information, including an article by Max Hastings, which was previously published in a longer version in the Daily Mail. Much of this is hard to read, but the facts are there – one million horses were sent from Britain to France during the war years, but only 62,000 returned – that’s a survival rate of 6 out of every 100, a sobering statistic.

In the 10% of France that was invaded during the war years, the 407,000 horses and mules that had been there before the war were reduced to 32,000 in 1918 – a survival rate just a little higher than the British horses, at nearly 8 out of every 100.

No need to ask what happened to all the horses that didn’t come home, but while in France they were put to a range of duties – as well as being ridden at full gallop into the enemy guns in cavalry charges, horses pulled guns and other equipment, ration carts and ambulances. They were worked relentlessly, killed and wounded by gunfire, poison gas and aeroplane bombs and often went hungry. Even though the British Army shipped tonnes of fodder across the Channel throughout the war years, there was never enough for full rations all round.

War Horse gives us a superb representation of what war was like for both men and horses. It made me think about the cruel conditions that both suffered during the conflict and realise that thousands of soldiers and horses were treated so similarly, being expected to survive in the wastelands of the battlefield and do whatever they were ordered to do, without question and to the limits of their ability (and often beyond them).

The joy of War Horse on stage is that, as well as being a great story about one of the 6% of horses that returned, it’s a fantastic spectacle with a brilliant cast and the most amazing horses. Now that the final performances have been announced, I urge you to buy your tickets soon – it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.

 

World War One at the Theatre

Oh What a Lovely War

Back in 1963 a sensation occurred on stage when Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop company performed O, What A Lovely War at the Stratford East theatre.

o what theatre

Rather than the patriotic plays, films and books spawned by the Second World War this production was the first to look back at the 1914-1918 conflict and question if it really was the war described in history books.

The show was in the style of a Victorian or Edwardian music hall evening and used a mixture of acting, music, slides and news ticker tapes to show their version of the war – very much the “lions lead by donkeys” ideal.

The play was so controversial that the censor of the time wasn’t sure that it was suitable for transfer to London’s West End and it took royal approval from HRH Princess Margaret before the transfer was allowed. A film was later made, although there were some changes made for this – not all approved by the Theatre Workshop!

To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the start of the war the play has been revived at the Stratford East Theatre and I was lucky enough to see it in the week before it closed.

inside theatre

It was a real rollercoaster of an afternoon – it is terribly funny in places, but then in the next scene I found myself on the verge of tears.  The scene I found most shocking was one set early in the war when the first casualties were arriving back in London from the Front and while ambulances collected the officers the men had to make their own way to the hospitals.

The dot matrix ticker tape stating casualties and the ‘gains’ really did bring home the losses.  To see that tens of thousands of men could be lost in the first few hours of a battle that then lasted months and gained only 100 yards of ground was mind-blowing.

In 1963 the play was seen as cutting edge and satirical and absolutely not sentimental at all. In 2014 I didn’t find this to be quite the case. I’m not sure if it is because there have been lots of other anti-war books/programmes/films or if it is because WW1 is now definitely history and not living memory. It was funny but it certainly had an almost safe, nostalgic feel.

I enjoyed my afternoon a great deal, I came away with some new information and some new perspectives on the war but I didn’t find it as satirical as I thought I would.  I do have a terrible earworm for the song “Oh! What A Lovely War” however…

Sarah

(both pictures were taken by me & photography of the auditorium before the show was allowed )