The life of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon is often only explored in English Literature classes or once a year on Remembrance Day. Therefore, to explore his life in a radio play is a surprising and challenging choice regarding audience engagement. However, the first of the plays from Durham University Classical Theatre company’s Classical Writing Competition is a success.
Absolution is written by student Alice Butler. The DUCT executive committee clearly selected her writing for its ability to seamlessly move between poetry and drama in its exploration of Sassoon’s interesting life. Audiences are taken on a journey from Sassoon’s childhood to his wartime experiences. During this time, it boldly explores Sassoon’s shift in mindset from that of a privileged young adult who sees war as a source of honour, to that of an adult suffering extreme loss.
Butler’s writing is impressive, but some of the tension is lost due to cringe-worthy lines and a few jokes that just miss the mark. Nevertheless, most of the lines are humorous or hard-hitting, such as the acknowledgement that “Rupert Brooke knows how to string a sentence together.”
The talented actors use their vocal ranges to their advantage in their performances, playing multiple roles with ease. They simultaneously communicate a love of poetry and a hatred for the circumstances of their reality. The pairing of Issy Flower and Ben Johanson lifts Absolution from a slow-burning radio play to a soul-searching ride that is worth taking. I question the gender-blind casting, as hearing a female voice play the famous Wilfred Owen does disengage audiences. However, it cannot be denied that Issy Flower and Eleanor Thornton do excel in their roles as the male monarchs of the poetic world.
DUCT is an old hand at radio plays, meaning that their use of audio is above the usual standard of student theatre. Unfortunately, it is still not faultless. There were issues with the clarity of lines when music was playing, and some pauses felt abrupt and unnecessary. There was a five-minute interval after just fourteen minutes of dialogue – this seemed an odd choice. That said, Natalya Uemlianin-Stone’s clever editing of the recordings made it sound as though the actors recorded the radio play in the same room. In reality, of course, they were miles away from each other, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Absolution is a welcome dose of classical theatre for anyone missing live performances. The fact that is student-written makes it all the more impressive. Bringing audiences to wartime England and engaging them with Siegfried Sassoon’s life is a challenging feat. However, the cast and production team rise to the occasion and deserve to be commended for their efforts.
Tickets for Absolution by Alice Butler can be purchased from the Durham Student Theatre website here: https://durhamstudenttheatre.savoysystems.co.uk/DurhamStudentTheatre.dll/.
It is a Pre-recorded Audio Performance. Once you have purchased a ticket you will receive a booking confirmation containing the link to access the show. Regardless of which performance date you choose, the stream will be available to you 24 hours a day from March 12th until March 19th at 7.30pm.
Image: Alice Butler.