WHEN Private Tommo Peaceful asks where is the young woman he has been visiting on leave from the trenches, the reply is: “In the cemetery. Damn the Germans, damn the French and damn you for fighting your war over my land!”
The exchange comes part way through the play, almost as an aside. Those words felt almost like a punch in the stomach and took me to recent images on the TV news where grieving Ukranian parents condemned those battling over their land, where they had previously lived in peace.
Michael Morpurgo’s story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, highlights the injustices of the quick Court Martials of the First World War which condemned 306 British soldiers, most of whom were suffering from battle fatigue and trauma, to death by firing squad, for cowardness or desertion. But the play’s message of the futility of war is as strong today as it was when these events took place.
When Simon Reade first adapted Michael Morpurgo’s short story for the stage, and presented it at the Bristol Old Vic, it was a one-man show lasting just 75 minutes. It is now a full length play with 39 characters, brought to life by seven actors, two of whom, Daniel Rainford and Daniel Boyd, play Tommo Peaceful and his elder brother Charlie.
Lucy Sierra’s cleverly designed set, with excellent use of lighting and realistic sound, serves equally well as a Devon farm cottage and school room, or the horror-strewn trenches and no-mans-land of the First World War.
The idyllic life of the hardworking Peaceful family is quickly shattered by the death of the father, killed by a tree he was felling, and the threat of the family being turned out of their tied cottage. The power, so often abused, that the landed gentry had over their workers, is clearly brought into focus by Michael Morpurgo.
Further abuse of power is shown through the petty officialdom of John Dougall’s bullying school master, who metamorphosises into a bullying Army Sergeant. Then there is the social narrowmindedness of fellow farm workers as unmarried Liyah Summers’ Molly is thrown out by her parents when she becomes pregnant by Charlie Peaceful. Warmly welcomed by Emma Manton’s Mrs Peaceful, she is loved by all the brothers, including Robert Ewens’ slow witted Big Joe.
When the Great War started, like millions of others, Charlie and the under-aged Tommo, swept along on a giant wave of patriotism, joined the Army, intent on saving their homes and loved ones from the invading hordes.
Despite all the injustices they encounter, leading to one of them being sentenced to death for choosing to save his wounded brother rather than throwing his life away on a futile attack on the enemy trenches, which resulted in almost 100 per cent losses, they never lose this belief that they must keep going to ensure the safety of their loved ones.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks by Tommo Peaceful, as continually consulting the watch given to the brothers by Tom Kanji’s understanding Captain Wilkie, he awaits the coming of dawn and an unjust execution of one of the brothers by firing squad. The calm manner in which Michael Morpurgo tells the story makes it all the more compelling and a greater condemnation of the futility of war, and abuse of power by petty officialdom.
Three years after Morpurgo wrote the story in 2006, and nearly 90 years after the events, posthumous pardons were issued to those who were executed for cowardness and desertion in the First World War.