Tuesday, 3 July 2018

REVIEW: For King and Country at the Southwark Playhouse


Every man was a boy once. Whether he is following protocol, correcting his posture or relying on his uniform, that boy never leaves.

“For King and Country” is a court room drama that takes place in 1918 on the Western Front. Private Hamp is facing a trial following his desertion. Only we learn that he has little active memory of that desertion, that it wasn’t a brave act but a symptom of his need to just leave, as he just couldn’t take it anymore. After seeing his friend blown to pieces and ending up drowned in mud following an explosion, he was shell shocked, and just “couldn’t take it no more”. 

This show directed by Paul Thomlinson and playing at Southwark Playhouse until 21 July, is an intensely sad two hours fuelled by moments of surprise, desperation and hope. 

During the Great War, acts of desertion and cowardice were punishable by death. I recently read a book called “Dead Man Walking” about the death penalty in the US. It asks about the point of killing a soul when that death will not rectify what he did. Here, Hamp cannot even articulate why he left or whether he would ever have come back to the front if he had had the chance, and you notice how fragile life can be, even in war where there are hundreds of casualties every day. 

The play involves the themes of mental health, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, we are lucky to be faced with theatre that accepts that mental health is just as important as any other physical illness. For a play that is over 50 years old, it is incredible that they were already addressing it! In the play, the President of the Court (played by Peter Ellis) asks Hamp’s lawyer, who mentions his mental health, “do you mean he is a lunatic?”. I feel lucky to be alive in a time when PTSD can be truthfully discussed. 

What I enjoyed about the ensemble cast is that it was made of a diverse group.
While they all wear pretty much the same uniform and colours, the personalities come out through voice and speech pattern. They all form a brotherhood, despite their harsh arguments. The lead Adam Lawrence as Hamp presents a highly emotional and troubling performance of a 24-year-old married man and father of a boy from Northern England whose uncertain speech pattern seems to have the ability to save him and kill him at the same time. 

One can imagine that back home, his slow and hesitant speech will make people ignore him, lose patience. I admire that his defendant, Lieutenant Hargreaves (played charismatically and sensitively Lloyd Everitt) finds that patience for him. He waits humbly, respectfully, for but a word or two that will help his defence. While he tries not to get too emotional about Hamp, the brotherhood takes over and he can’t accept that this very brotherhood would kill him. 

Andrew Cullum as the medical officer O’Sullivan is excellent as his mind will not accept that he could have helped Hamp more when he came to him because of his nerves and moves us when losing his calm. We can’t even imagine what he sees every day. I would say that more than anything, what the soldiers all have in common is keeping it together and being patient. This may be the reason Hemp makes some of them so angry: they may be thinking “why did he just walk off when I am on the verge of doing it every day but stop myself?” 

I must mention the loyalty between the soldiers. During the trial, while Hargreaves defends Hamp against Lieutenant Midgley (Fergal Coghlan), and that the latter passionately attacks Hamp’s desertion, they are still brothers and comfort each other at the end of the day. 

With scenes interrupted by trench fighting, the weight of what these men are going through is palpable. We can sense the heat, smell and comfort of liquor thanks to Jacqueline Gunn’s dark and wooden design and the men’s tight costumes by Deborah Wilkins and Paulina Domaszewska. 

As we approach the end of the centenary, this play honours the individual souls’ irrational hope and desperation that led them through the War. It is an at times uncomfortable reminder of the individual within the large statistics.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: B29 | Price of Ticket: £20
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