Royal Shakespeare Theatre 29 November 2014 to 31 January 2015
Summer 1914, a cheerful village fete in Warwickshire is all of a sudden overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War.
Young men sign up for the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, young women join the QA Nurses. We see them in their basic training and accompany them to Ploegsteert Forest, in Belgium.
It is there that the inconceivable takes its course.
After days of fierce and internecine fighting, on Christmas Eve, German soldiers of the Royal Saxon Infantry Regiment 134 and the Royal Warwickshires met in No-Man’s Land and agree on a truce over Christmas.
Together, they bury their dead comrades, they exchange gifts, they sing together and they play football.
Phil Porter gathered these historically documented events in a new play. With tender and harsh strokes, always achieving a lasting impression, he purveys the experience of war’s pawns and makes the audience feel where ruthless gaming of politicians hits home.
The set, designed by the legendary Tom Piper (the London Tower Poppies) in its fascinating simplicity, is an integral art work in itself.
Sam Kenyon deserves the credit for composition and adaptation of the music. In addition to extra fine arrangements, here in particular the breathtakingly beautiful new version of the Ave Maria must be pointed out. Musical Director Bruce O’Neil and his musicians are time and again woven into the action on stage. Together with a stunning lighting design, they lead the audience on their journey. Charles Balfour’s lighting is a masterpiece, its magic creates effortless transitions through emotions and scenes.
Director Erica Whyman selected a fabulous team for this play, the RSC’s 2014 family show.
Joseph Kloska plays Captain Bruce Bairnsfather who already during the war became famous for his cartoons from the trenches. He is relaxed, sceptical and caring, and an absolute star in the frontline theatre.
Old Bill is his most famous character, and here he is, part of his platoon, played by Gerald Horan, a warm-hearted walrus of a Tommy.
Sam Alexander as Captain Riley and Jamie Newall as Colonel Faulkner represent the classical upper-class officers.
Touching, hilarious and tragic: Oliver Lynes as clumsy Liggins, and a very special gem: the ever grumpy Private Smith, played by Harry Waller.
On the German side, we encounter Jamie Newall as the contact making Erich, the soldiers Jürgen: Chris McCalphy, Schmidt: Oliver Lynes and Franz: Tunji Kasim.
And there is Leutnant Kohler, disillusioned by war: Nick Haverson, in a portrayal full of warmth and heartfelt depth that makes you want to go and get to know Saxony.
In a blog written by a German native speaker, one thing has to be highlighted and cheered: the (nearly entirely) accent free pronunciation of the German lines by these actors. Well done!
One of my favourite scenes is the moment shared between soldiers Smith and Schmidt.
Woven in between the soldiering scenes, we find the nurses in the British field hospital.
The QA Nurses Phoebe (gorgeously insubordinate: Frances McNamee), Mrs Godfrey (sweetly posh: Flora Spencer-Longhurst), Maud (Sophie Khan-Levy, who also beautifully plays a singing Belgian country girl) and Staff Nurse Peaches (the delightful bubbly Emma Manton), jointly are struggling with the fallout of war. Whilst they are trying to preserve some cheerfulness, Matron (Leah Whitaker) sees a strict observance of regulations as the best support in hard times, and thus, Christmas Eve is bound to produce friction.
A piece of theatre that engages the audience throughout and confronts us with the only relevant Christmas related question – about the meaning of it all.
Photos: Topher McGrillis © RSC
This blogpost has also been published in German under https://artyviews.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/the-christmas-truce-der-weihnachtswaffenstillstand/