“Oh What A Lovely War” a production by Edinburgh’s Captivate Theatre at The Studio @ The Festival Theatre Edinburgh brings for a few short days (8 to 11 Nov) Joan Littlewood’s satirical musical to life once more, and a more appropriate timing could not be had as this week of course marks the 100th anniversary of the guns falling silent over the battlefields.
Joan Littlewood’s original 1963 musical came out of many sources for ideas (including a production for radio called “The Long Long Trail”) and was produced as a film in 1969. It is almost impossible now to imagine as an audience member the initial reactions of the public to this production; hostile would be a mild word to use for many, but it did start to have an effect on how people started to view the “war to end all wars” with hindsight and the futility of it all started to become a bit clearer for many people. Although I have seen the film many years ago, this, the musical production, I have for some reason not seen, so this is my first impressions of it.
Captivate Theatres ensemble cast do a good job here in bringing the almost insane world that satire can be to life, and viewed from a perspective of looking back over 100 years at “The Great War”, nothing for me can sum it up better than a production like this. There is a madness to this satirical world that somehow captures the madness of the whole war in my view,
Oh What a Lovely War is a very clever piece of writing and there are so many layers to it, layers that I hope are not lost on too many younger people in the audience as many of the references do now require a good grasp of political history of the period and its main players. There are also some powerful songs in here, and it is often forgotten that the title song "Oh! It's a Lovely War" is an original 1917 one written by J. P. Long and Maurice Scott. Music is very much a part of this production obviously – it is a musical, but it is the way in which these songs of the period were used as propaganda to entice millions to their slaughter that is disturbing now, and the new words over some of the best known hymns of the period adds more than a little irony to the fact that all sides were convinced that “God was on their side”.
Captivate Theatre has grown out of originally being an after school class for children (2011) in and around Edinburgh to a young company that have over the last few years produced some interesting productions. The youth of many of the ensemble made then perfect for this production, and a poignant reminder of the very young ages of many who lost their lives on the battlefields.
In an ensemble production like this one, it is unfair to select specific people out, so I am not going to do that. Everyone here worked well not only as individuals but as a company to produce a work that many far more experienced professionals with far larger resources would struggle to beat.
Against the on stage production we also have the background screen images of grim facts and still photographs from the war and it is worth remembering, as we struggle as a society now with the huge issues of “fake news” and media manipulation, that this war was possibly one of the largest fake news and political propaganda manipulations in history by the British (and other) governments. So much was stage managed here, fake photographs, films, newspaper reports and so much more. Any attempt to reveal the true horror of the mindless slaughter on both sides was carefully managed by governments and many of the worst pictures behind us on screen tonight were never released during the war at all. This was political manipulation of not only public information, but the very hearts and minds of the public itself on a scale perhaps never seen in history before. The figures of battlefield casualties for small, and often no, advantages in ground taken make grim reading and the end figures for the war – 10 million dead, 23 million wounded, 7 million missing - say everything and oddly nothing. I say nothing, because the sheer scale of the numbers here is so unimaginable to our senses that numbers – 50,000, 100,000, 1,000,000 become just numbers and somehow comprehending the loss and suffering of every individual becomes lost. We can comprehend small numbers of people dying and have empathy with them, but on this scale it becomes far more difficult. The fact that so many at the front chose to remain silent forever on what they saw only added to the de-sensitisation that many felt after the war. Many of course were so traumatised that they could not tell anyone of their experiences, but truth has a way of always finding a way out and over the years the senselessness and sheer scale of the slaughter has become so much clearer.
What is so clear in this production, and handled well by the cast, is the contrast between the futility of the slaughter of a whole generation and the vast profits that were being made by many companies and individuals to supply the means of that slaughter, the uniforms required, even the bandages for the wounded and dying; there was for some, vast commercial profit in this war. The whole cast also win a star here in this review for dealing with the break between acts evacuation of the building due to fire alarms going off. In true professional spirit, they not only continued with the show after the all clear to re-enter the building was given, but managed a few ad-libs into the script too.
I cannot watch this production though without thinking to myself that, when this production first came to the stage, millions of people in this war were still alive to give their first hand witness voices to the world. Now, they are all gone, like the guns, their voices are silent, and it falls to others now to speak for them.
As we mark the 100th year of the guns falling silent on “The War To End All Wars”, it has to be mentioned here I think that, although this production concentrates on the battlefields of the Western Front, when Britain entered the war, it entered with the largest land Empire known in history and soldiers from all over the Empire found themselves involved in the conflict. Many other “Empires” were also fighting for land and power and the Ottoman Empire was one of them. The losses at Gallipoli suffered by the Australian and New Zealand forces in their battle with Turkish forces was only one of many battles across the world in a war fought on a global scale that we need also to remember.
I have deliberately not earlier referred to this war as World War 1 as for the people who fought and lived through it, it was never known as that. Sadly, the end of this war seemed only to deliver a peace that was so badly handled in economic and geo-political arrangements that many of the elements leading up to the next world war were already in place and The War To End All Wars never gave an end, but a brief few decades of peace.
Review by Tom King