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Oh What a Lovely War: why Michael Gove is right to hate this play

The present production is against a different backdrop of wars, and speaks to a new generation, but does so powerfully, says Lindsey German.

Oh What a Lovely War

Revival of Oh What a Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford, February 2014

Michael Gove hates this play. He regards it as having helped create an inaccurate picture of the First World War, insufficiently steeped in patriotism and glory.

The actors and director clearly reciprocate, since a picture of Gove on a slideshow is described as a donkey, the real donkey then being revealed as much more prepossessing.

This sets the tone for a highly enjoyable but thought provoking evening. While Gove’s approbation alone might be enough to attract you to this production, there are many other reasons for trying to get hold of one of the few remaining tickets. Its agitprop style has the actors performing as pierrots, seaside entertainers who enact the play in their clownish costumes accessorised with military gaiters and makeshift rifles, who break into song at regular intervals and who progress from innocent enthusiasm for the war to a grim understanding of its reality and consequences.

It is the juxtaposition between the gaiety of the bank holiday pier in August 1914 to the misery of the trenches which gives the play its power and makes it so moving. The songs are all contemporary songs, the earlier from music hall and entertainment, many of the later ones composed by soldiers in the trenches.

The revival of 'Oh What a Lovely War' at Stratford’s beautiful Theatre Royal is to mark two 100 year anniversaries: the birth of its founder and director, Joan Littlewood, and of course the centenary of the start of the First World War. Littlewood was a path breaking theatre director, heavily influenced by agitprop theatre techniques, and creating her plays from improvisation. Her Theatre Workshop was famous for producing a generation of fine actors.

The original, in 1963, was a big hit, transferring to the West End and being made into a successful film in the late 1960s. It expressed the feelings of a newer generation fed up with war and frightened by nuclear annihilation. The original programme, on sale with the current, contains notes including ‘3 and a half million shells were fired at the Battle of Messines Ridge in 24 days (21st May -14 June 1917). One H-bomb could have devastated the whole area gained in 24 seconds’.

The present production is against a very different backdrop of wars, and speaks to a new generation, but does so very powerfully. Like much of the most effective art from the First World War it allows the ordinary soldiers to speak for themselves, in this case through song. The songs are very different from the poems of Owen or Sassoon, but they reflect a growing cynicism and contempt for those who waste so many soldiers’ lives in the name of patriotism. They are reinforced by the signs which flash up the casualty figures for particular battles, figures which still make you gasp at how many died, so quickly.

The company of actors take on many roles. The four women are extremely good: at the beginning of the war we see them as using their charms to get the men to sign up, acting almost as sirens to lure the men into danger, and using a range of music hall songs to do so. But they also perform as women looking at the posted up lists of dead, worrying that their loved ones will be on it, and as munitions or other factory workers. One scene, which I felt was a bit lost in this production, show two women exchanging atrocity stories about Germany, paralleled by two German women telling the same atrocity about England. A woman pacifist is heckled by other women as she speaks against the war.

The generals don’t come out well. Nor should they. Despite the protestations of revisionist historians, their record overall was one of incompetence, blunder, obsession with previous wars, and denial when the human costs of this were clear for all to see. This is highlighted in the original programme which claims that

‘In 1960 an American Military Research Team fed all the facts of World War 1 into the computers they use to plan World War 111. They reached the conclusion that the 1914-18 war was impossible and couldn’t have happened. There could not have been so many blunders nor so many casualties.’

The final songs are poignant backed by a picture of soldiers in the trenches, relaxing, their eyes straight to the camera as if they had little to worry about. All dead now, but honoured by a play which tells the terrible truth about war. As the actors took their bows, one reminded us that the war games were still continuing, and that any number can play.

Source: Counterfire