IN little over an hour, this aims to outline the human story of the First World War through the emotive and richly colourful poems of Wilfred Owen.

It’s a tall order but writer-director David Fletcher has applied a powerful and stately eloquence to the vivid horrors of a dreadful conflict. They are brought to life in a provocative studio drama format where the sheer confrontational effect makes the messages ring out loudly and clearly.

As part of a mini-season commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, the piece picks up Owen’s theme that his poetry is in the pity of war and turns it about so that the pity is in the poetry.

Four women and three men deliver the words with mighty compassion, but the lion’s share is, perhaps inevitably, with the males. They have to describe – ‘re-live’ – the horrors of the trenches, the mud, the bullets, the shells. And they do so with burning conviction. Henri West agonisingly delivers in a tour-de-force performance the plight of the severely disabled soldier in a wheelchair, bitterly assessing the future he has lost.

Sean Glock and Martin Cosgrif boldly and brilliantly convey the camaraderie, the fears and rigours of the battlefield, a world to which they sense they have been committed and abandoned, the irony of their existence compounded by empty reassurances from afar by the likes of General Sir Douglas Haig.

Intensive stuff indeed, but there could be room for an occasional shading of humour. Not light relief, just a pointer to some of the inner fortitude in such men which, in drama terms, would make their ordeals still more poignant to an audience.

Anthem for Doomed Youth runs in the Loft Studio until October 20

Peter McGarry


Anthem for Doomed Youth

Based on the poems of Wilfred Owen

Devised and directed by David Fletcher

Loft Theatre Company, Leamington Spa

01926 800360

7-20 Oct 2018

Review by Nick Le Mesurier for Leamington Courier

This is the season for remembrance, when our collective memories are jogged of past wars, and the usual hopes are expressed that they won’t happen again. That hope has been expressed many times, and each time has been unfulfilled. Wilfred Owen got it right when he spoke of the pity of war. Yet even to say he got it right when one was not there is to miss the point. Can one really know the pity of war?

Probably not. But who would want to know it directly if they really knew what was coming? Owen was invalided out of the trenches suffering from what was then called shell-shock, what we now PTSD – a less appalling name. After recovery he chose to return to the trenches. By then he was no blind patriot, but felt a kind of calling to speak the truth untold. He had to know it to the full. And as we know, he was killed in the attempt.

What he left behind is some of the finest poetry in the English language. That’s another easy phrase. Such poets don’t set out to write the finest poetry etc etc. They set out to do what they can. History, and fashion, applies the qualification. The closest we get is some kind of sense of the feeling, an echo perhaps, louder in some than in others. Often the truth of it is in the attempt to know it as it is.

The Loft’s acknowledgement – I won’t say celebration – of the 100th anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars, as it was called, gets close enough. Seven of the best actors perform Owen’s letters and poetry, arranged in a rough chronological order to take us through the course of the war, from hope to despair and ultimately to reconciliation. Some of the last lines Owen wrote acknowledged the equality between enemies, the engagement gained through loss, and the price of that understanding. Perhaps that is where the pity lies.

Wilfred Owen’s poems weren’t written to be read aloud. But in the act they acquire a power even greater than they have on the page. In performance they reminded me of some of Shakespeare’s great speeches. They have that sense of rightness.

Anthem for Doomed Youth is simple in its construction, powerful in its delivery. It has some of the best acting I have ever seen at The Loft, and that’s saying something. It has that kind of transcendent power that only the theatre can create, and is perhaps as close as one can get to the real pity of war without actually being there.

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