Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in autumn 2017, where they were both being treated for ‘war neurosis’ – or shellshock. They knew each other for a year, before Owen’s death at the front one week before the Armistice. It was a short friendship, but one that had a significant impact on both writers and the shape of twentieth century literature. Not About Heroes, by Stephen Macdonald, explore the poetry, pity and politics of war in an emotionally resonant and powerful play.
Daniel Llewelyn Williams is brilliantly confident and blustery as Sassoon whilst Owain Gwynn as Owen plays awestruck and slightly naïve brilliantly. Sketches of trenchlife are drawn out through conversations, expressions of war revealed in poetry. Weaving dialogue from their letters with their celebrated poetry, it elegantly weaves together the story of their friendship. We move between wartime exchanges and later reflections, as Sassoon looks back on their time at Craiglockhart.
These were men whose minds had been broken by the experience of war. But through poetry they hoped to rebuild the society that was being beaten by it. Sassoon says ‘We are the only ones who can help them imagine. If they know the truth they have to stop.’ It’s a sad truth that despite knowing the truth, war continues to be a part of life.
The pair didn’t agree on everything. Despite his criticism of war, Owen still wanted to ‘know how it feels to be hit by a bullet’ – for him there was some glory in the act. Sassoon was more overtly anti-war, and the production shows this.
Wilton’s Music Hall makes for an ideal setting, its faded walls and rustic décor adding an extra layer of shadow and smoke to Oliver Harman (designer) and Kevin Heyes’ (lighting) set. Not About Heroes was first performed in 1982 at the Edinburgh Festival, going on to tour and be revised over the next four decades into the play we see before us today. This London run by Flying Bridge Theatre Company and Seabright Productions concludes an acclaimed two-year tour, commemorating the centenary of the Armistice. It’s lost none of its poignancy in that time.