Castle Theatre Company’s most recent production, Regeneration, is a stage adaptation of Pat Barker’s 1991 anti-war novel. Set in a wartime mental hospital in November 1917, the play explores shellshock, questions of psychology including masculinity and sexuality, and, most profoundly, the traumas of war. I felt the play offers a beautiful and painful picture of the impact of war on individuals’ lives, as well as the tragedy done to a generation of British youth. It’s nearly one week after Remembrance Sunday, our annual reminder of that man-made catastrophe named World War One; and it’s Movember, a month to raise awareness around issues of men’s mental health and the ever-changing construction of masculinity. You could hardly find a more suitable play for this week’s theme. Not only is the play uncannily timely, the cast and crew of Castle Theatre Company succeed in bringing a sense of authenticity and doomed heroism into the room with their production.
I say ‘into the room’ instead of ‘onto the stage’ as a more accurate description of the setting and atmosphere created. I can’t find enough words to praise the choice of Hild Bede Chapel as the venue for the play. Actors were not elevated on a stage but rather performed right in front of the audience, entering and exiting through the seats. The fourth wall is broken, and the immersive effect produced allows the audience to engage fully with the stories these tortured characters are presenting to us. Not only does the chapel offer a stage with plenty of room for actors to manoeuvre, the effect of the live musical accompaniment is made more haunting in this vast space. The string instruments’ unsettling melodies resonate around the chapel, and under the high roof stage lights throw deep shadows onto actors’ features. Even before the play starts there was already a disconcerting feeling creeping up my spine.
Speaking of spines, Olly Stanton’s portrayal of Willard, the grumpy soldier moving around in his wheelchair believing that his spine has been broken, is one of the most memorable in the play. Willard is the first character we meet, as he greets the audience before the play officially starts; complaining about surrounding people’s lack of discipline and his ruined future due to his broken spine, it is clear he can no longer fight on the front lines. The play emphasizes unique individual experience by showing each character’s different reaction to the war, meaning each actor has their moment in the spotlight and can deliver an intimate and emotional portrayal. Yet, for me, the star of the night is Billy Prior, played by Daniel Vilela. A working-class officer painfully aware of his social status and difference from his fellow officers in the original novel, through Vilela’s interpretation the character becomes even more complex and touching, carrying himself with youthful bravado and machismo, until this façade is cracked and the audience is confronted suddenly with his vulnerability, the injustice he experiences, and the pride and sense of honour which motivates him. I was also moved by Harrison Newsham’s Wilfred, the young poet full of sensibility and courage, whose ability to love is undaunted by the cruel world he lives in, even though it is this love that leads him to his ultimate doom. However, the main characters, soldier-poet Sassoon and psychiatrist Rivers, while portrayed well, do not seem to stand out enough within the cast, as the development of their characters does not feel like the centre of the plot. This is primarily a script issue, as the fragmented structure of the play with its short scenes and the frequent entering and exiting of characters sometimes interrupts the flow and our ability to connect to characters, particularly with these two.
But in fairness, we are not watching a play with a straightforward central plot or even with clearly defined main characters. One of the most fascinating aspects of this production is its vivid and varied short scenes; whether it’s a monologue or a group movement sequence, each conveys strong feelings and leaves a lasting impression. One particularly powerful moment stands out to me; Anderson suddenly loses himself in the painful memory of the frontline, and, as he enters a trance, the stage gradually turns blood red, everything apart from his memory disappears from the surrounding world, and he screams and runs for cover. Sassoon and Wilfred spend their last night together in intense and ambivalent emotions, and the play culminates with Wilfred reciting in front of his idol his poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. This scene condenses the main themes of the whole play; all the soldiers stand in formation, marching in doomed pride and unresolved doubts towards the front line.
Regeneration presents an unforgiving indictment of the trauma caused by war, but does so in a deeply personal way, exploring each characters’ complex personalities and taking the audience members on their individual emotional journeys. It may not be the most relaxing play to watch on a Friday night- but it’s definitely a journey worth taking.
Image credit: James Bailey