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Theatre Review Moving tribute to two of WWI's greatest poets

Not About Heroes
Wilton’s, London

 

NEARING the end of a long national tour, this retelling of Stephen MacDonald’s play about the real-life friendship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, two of the most celebrated poets of the first world war, is a moving way to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of that terrible conflict.

 

Owen and Sassoon met in 1917 at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland, to where Owen had been sent with shell shock and Sassoon had been banished after becoming openly critical of the conduct and purpose of the war.

 

Directed by Tim Baker for the Newport-based Flying Bridge theatre company and played out on a set by Oliver Harman that cleverly incorporates a battlefield of charred trees, the hospital ward where Owen is staying and the office to which Sassoon has been sidelined, Daniel Llewelyn Williams as Sassoon and Owain Gwynn as Owen give convincing performances that capture the emotional depth of a relationship forged if not in the heat of battle then certainly in its fearful glow.

 

In civilian slacks and cardigan, Sassoon is the more buttoned-up of the two men. He's older, cynical and initially slightly condescending to Owen, whose stuttering, uniformed uncertainty is partly due to the awe in which he holds his poetic hero.

 

Together the two convey, with admirable subtlety, the pleasing changes that gradually overtake their relationship as Owen, with his mentor’s help, blossoms into a poet in his own right and grows immeasurably in confidence.

 

We see no other protagonists on stage, just Sassoon and Owen presented in various flashbacks as the older man looks back on the events that led first to their friendship and eventually to Owen’s death, filling him with grief and guilt.

 

It's a highly touching exploration of a heartfelt attachment which, while tacitly underscored by the homosexuality that both were forced to keep hidden, was born primarily of genuine love and respect.

 

While the play is a marvellous opportunity to hear the beauty of the words that both poets crafted, its primary worth is its celebration of the strength of the human spirit and the great bonds that can be forged from adversity.

 

Runs until November 11, box office: wiltons.org.uk

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