PAT Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is one of the great literary achievements of the late 20th century – an evocation both of the sheer horror of the “war to end all wars” and of the different ways in which the soldiers, medics, governing class and military top brass dealt with the experience.
The late autumn production by Yeovil’s Swan Theatre, directed by Mark Payne, is Regeneration, Nicholas Wright’s stage adaption of the first part of the trilogy. The play captures the nightmares, tensions, paranoia, courage and unimaginable experiences of the officers sent for rehabilitation to Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh.
Mark Payne’s brilliant direction and stand-out performances by four young Swan debutants and one of the company’s finest older actors bring vividly to life the scale of the carnage and the terrible freak accidents on the Western Front. The play also explores the different methods of the doctors to repair the psychological damage suffered by those who survived physical injury.
Through the empathetic care of the (real life) army doctor Captain Rivers (Robert Graydon), and the bullying “punishment” treatments of Dr Yealland (Dave King), the play highlights the brutal reality that both are actually doing the same thing – getting the men back to the front.
The behaviour and attitudes of three real life soldiers – the poets Siegfried Sassoon (19-year old Liam Beard), Wilfred Owen (Sebastian Thrower) and Robert Graves (Will Butcher) – show the different ways in which sensitive, intelligent men dealt with the horrors around them, Sassoon’s bravado and brazen criticism of the war-mongers, Owen’s romantic patriotism and Graves’ pragmatism.
A fourth young officer, the working class Lt Billy Prior (Cameron Thrower), is haunted by his experiences in the trenches, unable to communicate the images and memories that have taken his voice away but inform his screaming nightmares.
Regeneration runs to Saturday 16th November. I cannot pretend that this is not a shocking and deeply moving experience, but it is an utterly compelling production by one of the region’s finest companies, with every single actor convincing in their characters. If we gave stars (which we don’t), I would give this five stars.
Photograph of Craiglockhart Military Hospital