Before I begin, I must state one thing: this play, Not About Heroes, is one of the best I have seen in Oxford this year. Performed at the Jacqueline du Pre Auditorium and tucked away in St Hildas, this gem of a performance only runs November 11-12th. As if reflecting its fleeting best-before date, it packs enough emotional punch to keep you riveted on the edge of your seat throughout its rather long, two and a half hour running time.
Following the lives and friendship of the two war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Not About Heroes is a tender, touching evocation of two men getting to know and care about each other, just as the First World War is tearing everything they know apart. The almost clichéd concept of the “pity of the trenches” is here dealt with gently and respectfully, with both characters describing the horrors of warfare in simple, powerful language that carries the audience with them into the mud and flying bullets. The fact that this story is based in truth make the play’s events resound with new depth – when Sassoon tells us at the play’s beginning how Owen will die “just a week before the war’s end” we all know he will be swallowed by the violence, and yet as their friendship grows we desperately want him to survive.
Special mention must go to the actors, Andrew Crump and Stanley Carrodas. Being the only two characters on stage, they virtually had to “learn half a play each”, as the director put it – and they managed this incredibly well. Whilst beforehand I was sceptical over whether two people could keep a play alive for its entirety, Crump and Carrodas managed to completely inhabit the wartime poets, bringing their language and writing to life in a way that had me wishing the play was longer. The “horrors of the front”, the shame at being alive whilst friends were dead – all these concepts were tackled by the actors in ways that made them seem new and fresh. The poetry that was delicately weaved through the play was also beautifully read – I left the auditorium afterwards with a burning desire to find and devour Owen and Sassoon’s work.
The power of this play, about war and the young lives it destroys, was of course all the more potent for being performed on Armistice Day. The Last Post, played live from a balcony at the end of the performance, almost brought the audience automatically to their feet, and the deafening silence that ensued seemed more powerful than anything I had experienced before on that day of remembrance. The bare nature of the set, with only a desk and a few chairs, only accentuated the power and strength of the two actors and their message of friendship and destruction. Sadly, there was only a small audience for this incredible experience – much of Oxford really missed out on a theatrical gem here.
Verdict: I can only praise Not About Heroes and its moving story of Sassoon and Owen as a performance that I will not forget for a long time to come.
Image// Lata Nobes