JOAN Littlewood was born in 1914, right at the start of the Great War. Fifty years later, established as a writer, activist and director, she and her team at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, created a satirical musical play about the war, performed by a Pierrot troupe.
The power of its impact was immediate, and has lasted throughout the decades.
Last year, to celebrate the writer’s centenary and the play’s 50th anniversary, the east London company mounted a revival, and it is now touring, visiting Bath Theatre Royal until Saturday 14th March.
Designed by Lez Brotherston and directed by Terry Johnson, the play incredibly makes its Theatre Royal Bath debut, and many of Monday’s audience seemed unfamiliar with both the songs (classics from the First World War) and the convention.
The Pierrots – a popular form of entertainment in the early years of the 20th century – tell the story of the progress of the war from the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo to the final “peace”, in the form of a set of war games. This versatile and energetic cast create memorable vignettes among the flurry of dance and song.
The blind arrogance and total idiocy that led to slaughter on an unimaginable scale is charted by ticker-tape statistics rolled out on an angular (and confusingly frequently moving) screen across the stage.
Women keep the home fires burning, encourage their men to fight, dread the daily casualty lists.
Officers strut, plan, gossip and compete, putting faith in a supreme being who will guide their steps – God on Our Side, as Bob Dylan has it.
Industrialists from England, France, Germany and America meet on the grouse moors, where peace is a dirty word as they chat about the money to be made from selling the supplies of war to one another.
And millions of men from all across Europe, from Australia and the USA, died during the four years of carnage. Those who survived carried the scars to their bodies and their minds.
As the leader of the Pierrots reassured the audience at the end, never fear. The numbers continue. The wars continue. The war to end all wars was just one more in the history of warfare, seen by some as an essential element of life. When will we ever learn.