THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE; Phil Porter
Runs: 2h 40m, one interval. To Sat 31 January 2015
Review: 11 12 14, Alexander Ray Edser
Brave, important, moving.
THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE is a bold choice for this season; we may be used to the RSC striving to bring us the unusual, the surprising, but this play, with its sombre message is brave. And yet it’s highly proper too, so much about 1914 in the air at the moment, and as this show opens, so much about the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front.
The play opens with a scene about as English as you can get – a village summer fete. We see the men, in a series of intercutting scenes, enlist, go to the Front, fight a battle. Battlefield scenes interchange with hospital scenes; military discipline at the Front is mirrored by military discipline in hospital uniform.
Scene by scene we build up a picture of the men and women; the style is almost epic. We are able to contemplate the complex politics as the play progresses. Second Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather emerges as protagonist, for it’s his story we follow. In Joseph Kloska’s performance, he becomes a man we care about as much as he cares about the men he commands. Kloska’s is a lovely performance – his warmth and humanity reaches out to us at every turn. In the concert party he is touchingly hilarious in soldierly-performed drag (terribly British you know.)
The first half concludes with the men going over the top. The RSC brings its massive resources sensitively to bare in the staging; we catch a glimpse of the horror the men faced.
The second half is mostly taken up by the truce itself. No-man’s land is represented by the vast, open, empty acting space – all white. The meeting between the British and the Germans is beautifully handled with lines being repeated in English and German. They play football and exchange presents, yes, but weight is appropriately given to their need to bury their dead.
Using hospital and Front the layered complexities of politics of war are fully brought home to us. This is a true ensemble piece, strong performances leap out to us. This is powerful drama, and any hint of sentimentality is banned from the event.
One final thought. The battle at the end of the first half is shocking and moving. All the more so because it’s in the space in which we have seen many an iconic Shakespearean historical battle. We may be reminded of the list of the dead read out at the end of Henry V – aristocracy we may note. But here, the list is more egalitarian. Social tectonic plates are shifting. And here we celebrate what in 1914 was a military nightmare. The men could not go on killing each other if, as Bruce Bairnsfather notes, they realise they are really all the same.
Sophie Khan Levy
Director – Erica Whyman
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting – Charles Balfour
Music – Sam Kenyon
Sound – Andy Franks