Forgotten Voices is adapted by writer/director Malcolm McKay from Max Arthur’s best-selling non-fiction tapestry of interviews with survivors of the Great War, recorded for the sound archives of the Imperial War Museum, and first published five years ago.
McKay invents his own new characters and places them in an ante-room at the museum, a large polished arena with three anonymous benches backed by a huge reproduction of powerful painting by John Singer Sargent of badly gassed soldiers being led bandaged and defeated from the trenches; this painting, and the Bach cello solo that seems to describe its agony and stark poignancy, is by far the most fascinating element in the show.
Using Arthur’s interview material, McKay’s new characters are pieced together in snippets, but they don’t really interact; they just each have their say, each taking polite turns, and there’s no dramatic propulsion to the evening. As the ranks are represented by a pukka captain, a cocky private and a blunderbuss sergeant, we await some kindling of the class war embers in between the vivid memories.
There are odd moments when this nearly happens, but they soon die down. Strenuously chatting away between the men is Belinda Lang’s northern mill worker, Kitty Proctor, who sets the date of these interview sessions at the museum as 1957, the year of Bill Haley’s triumphant British tour (“Ooh, what about that “Rock Around the Clock?” she coos, somewhat gratuitously). But none of them seem to go for an interview inside. And why are they hanging around if they’ve already been?
By the time the production reaches the Assembly Rooms at this year’s Edinburgh festival, maybe a more convincing dramatic form will have been worked out. Meanwhile, there’s plenty to enjoy in the performances, which nonetheless remain curiously isolated from each other.
Matthew Kelly is Private Kidder Harris, a Lancastrian steel worker who joined up for a bob a day and describes, movingly, the chlorine cloud on the Somme, where 19,000 soldiers died in one day, some of them seeming to “drown in the air”. Rupert Frazer is Captain Phillip Newton, still gutted at the memory of having to supervise the execution of an alleged “coward” who freaked out, and of leaving a man who’d had his legs blown off to fend for himself by the roadside. The mud at Passchendaele is recalled as “beautiful” evidence of the end of civilisation, and Timothy Woodward’s Sgt Lawrence Todd describes the community life in the trenches and the famous Christmas Day football match.
When the cast break into Ivor Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, though, you are reminded of the brilliant theatricality of Oh, What a Lovely War and the shortcomings of this concoction. For a start, why is Steven Crossley’s American private, Joe Haines, kept back until the last moments, with very little impact when he speaks? You expect some kind of revelation, but nothing he says tops anything else. The show peters out on a recap of bereavement. Not strong enough.
- Michael Coveney