The Christmas Truce
“THIS is bloody madness, this! Like lambs to the blinkin’ slaughter”, shouts Tallis (Chris Nayak) as the disorientated troops of the Royal Warwicks make their way through no man’s land towards the German trenches having been ordered over the top.
Phil Porter’s much-anticipated play – the RSC Christmas production commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – certainly captures the bemusement of the troops as they wonder just why they’re stuck in a flooded rat invested trench miles from loved ones at Christmas.
But it is also shot through with real hope.
Porter has spent a year researching and writing the play based mainly on the memoir of Old Bill creator Bruce Bairnsfather and the diary of Captain Robert Hamilton, together with family stories of those whose ancestors served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Bairnsfather’s poetic sensibility and humanity shines through in Joseph Kloska well-rounded performance, supported by a cast of characters ranging from seasoned walrus moustached soldier Old Bill (Gerard Horan) to innocent Pike-like reservist Liggins (Oliver Lynes), to the twitish Colonel Faulkner (Jamie Newall). If some appear a little clichéd they still manage to engender genuine sympathy.
The play taps into a real human spirit. Those on the front line may have been going through a living hell but their day to day lives were not without humour, even if heartache was never far away, epitomised by the cricket scoreboard showing runs (things to be thankful for), against wickets (fallen colleagues) and overs (days at the front). The play opens with that most English of games with those at play unaware of the horrors that await. The cricketing metaphor is followed through as the dead leave the stage having bowled their last ball.
The everyday experience of the troops is cleverly and clearly brought home as they mass narrate directly on everything from the appalling food (avoid the apple and plum jam like the plague) to the different bombs aimed their way (avoid the Jack Johnson at all costs).
The truce itself brings Tommy and Fritz together in no man’s land and they quickly discover they’re not that very different – and of course they have a football match, complete with a joke about Germans and penalties.
It would have been good to hear more from the front line nurses in the hospital, but that could make another play in itself. Here the battle-hardened heart of Matron (Leah Whittaker) is melted, but otherwise little is heard from the wards.
The set is spartan – a few ladders and camp beds, and a large red cross backdrop for the hospital – but this is a play about the human condition and does not need to employ the RST’s arsenal of tricks.
Music runs throughout re-emphasising the human heart of this production from the lively pre-play folk at an English country fête to the closing medley of carols.
The Christmas Truce may not do wonders for the sale of apple and plum, but it is a fitting tribute to those who served.
The Christmas Truce runs until January 31. Visit www.rsc.org for tickets and further details.
Bruce Bairnsfather (Joseph Kloska) and Leutnant Kohler (Nick Haverson) find common ground in no man’s land. (s)
Battle-hardened Matron with the soft centre (Leah Whittaker). (s)