The three heroes of French playwright Gerard Sibleyras’ elegiac comedy, in Tom Stoppard’s sensitive translation, are comrades thrown together by the fortunes of war long after the event. Henri, Philippe and Gustave live in a home for old soldiers, where they’re cared for by nursing nuns and each carries scars from the World Wars in which they have fought. It’s 1959 and the scars are physical, mental – and permanent.
Somehow the trio have staked their claim to a little terrace in the former château that catches the setting sun – and affords an unsettling view of the world beyond, symbolised by a row of poplar trees (the original title is Le Vent des Peupliers, the Wind in the Poplars). And like the three musketeers, they are joined by a fourth – the stone statue of a dog, to which each relates in his own way!
Henri is the senior inmate, grounded by a gammy leg. Philippe’s war wound means he passes out without warning; and he’s anxious to stay alert, for he suspects the sister in charge of bumping off some of her charges since she does not like to have more than one celebrating a birthday on any one day … and Gustave’s agoraphobia does not bode well for the trio’s plans for a sortie into the wider world, in an expedition planned almost as methodically as an escape from Colditz!
Even though they actually get as far as rehearsing for a steep climb by roping themselves together with a handy length of hose, nothing much actually happens. And Gustave’s refusal to leave without the stone dog means their ambitions seem unlikely to be realised.
But the portraits of these heroes whose lives have been changed and wasted by war are drawn with great delicacy and insight by Sibleyras and beautifully realised by Christopher Ettridge as the paranoiac Philippe, David Fielder as the sweeter-natured Henri and Michael Hadley as the cynical Gustave.
What does come over in Paul Hart’s nicely judged production is the joshing camaraderie of the men and the witty sardonic humour of some of their exchanges - there was a lot of audience laughter on press night. And Andrew D Edward’s design, beautifully lit by Richard Howell, combines with Simon Slater’s specially written music to create a mood of elegiac melancholy that underlines what the men have lost through the sacrifices they made in different terrible conflicts.
As forces from so many countries combine in yet another offensive designed to be the last great push, this production of Heroes is a timely reminder of the lifelong implications of conflict to the individual soldier, even if he/she does survive.