It hardly feels like a week since the curtain fell for the final time on Sodbury Player’s production of ‘Private Peaceful’. Several members of the cast, including myself, have expressed a deep sense of loss after finishing this show that goes beyond the normal ‘post-show blues’. Be advised, this review contains spoilers.
‘Private Peaceful’ is a novel by Michael Morpurgo, author of ‘War Horse’. He tells the story of two brothers, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, and how their lives are torn apart by the outbreak of war. Having both fallen in love with their childhood friend, Molly, their relationship is put to the test when Molly becomes pregnant with Charlie’s child. When the recruiting sergeant comes to town, Tommo lies about his age and joins up along with Charlie. From there, the horrors of the Western Front push them closer together again, until the tragic conclusion of their story.
The stage play for an ensemble was adapted by Simon Reade, and the task of directing our production was taken up by the wonderfully talented duo that is Ross Brown and Maggie Allsopp. The cast itself consisted of over thirty performers, with several people (myself included) taking on multiple roles. Lots of rapid costumes changes were involved! The set was minimal and lighting was used to incredible effect, along with many dramatic sequences placed into the play by the directors to ease transitions between scenes.
The play starts with Tommo (played by Sam Frankcom in his stunning debut leading a show) in a cell. Tommo acts as a kind of narrator, taking the audience through memories of his childhood in Devon all the way up to the events in 1916 which led to the death of his brother, Charlie (powerfully played by Ross Arnott). Each scene is almost self contained, acting as an individual memory. It was the inspired imagination of our directors that allowed the scenes to flow into each other to create the overall story. The story, as I’ll soon make clear, was central to all our efforts as a company.
Michael Morpurgo has never been one to shy away from the aspects of history that some would rather not discuss. The fact that the British army shot more of their own men than any other nation during the First World War, for example. These men were executed by firing squad for perceived cowardice, desertion and some for simply sleeping at their posts. The term that was coined after the war was ‘shell shock’, but let me be blunt. These men were traumatised. Over the last hundred years we have slowly come to recognise this, the British government only granting these men posthumous pardons in 2006. Overwhelmed by a horrific conflict, the scale of which had never been seen before at that time, these men should have received support and care. Instead, the seemingly obvious course of action for the time was to brand them cowards and have them shot.
This was a mentality that I had to do my utmost to get across onstage. In the first act I had three different roles, but after the interval I only had one to contend with. Sergeant ‘Horrible’ Hanley. We first see him during Tommo and Charlie’s basic training, where the Sergeant takes a dislike to Charlie for his apparent lack of discipline and proceeds to make an example of him, shouting and bawling at every opportunity. He also attempts to get to Charlie through Tommo, punishing Tommo with laps around the parade ground. When Tommo collapses and Charlie rushes to help his brother, Hanley loses it big time and has Charlie tied to the wheel of a gun carriage. As you can no doubt tell, Hanley is not a pleasant person.
In discussing the character of Hanley, it was clear to myself and the directors that he was a professional soldier of the time. Many soldiers would have resented the necessity of bringing in raw recruits, men and indeed boys who otherwise would not have been suited to army life. We decided that in his view, Hanley was being tough on these new recruits in an attempt to toughen them up, for he knew better than most just what kind of horrors were ahead of them. I took the view that while these were Hanley’s motives, he attached no sentimentality to these new recruits. He was a soldier and a soldier can die at any moment. That was his reality. A soldier also obeys orders, and to be faced with a soldier who disobeyed orders flew in the face of Hanley’s reality.
We now get to the crux of the story. During an attack, Tommo is badly injured. Charlie manages to pull him into a crater, where one of their friends, Pete, another soldier and Sergeant Hanley are taking shelter. When the signal comes to advance and press the attack, Hanley jumps to his feet, expecting the others to follow. When they do not, he is infuriated. When Charlie Peaceful pipes up and explains that he will not leave his brother behind, Hanley is apoplectic. He makes it clear to Charlie that failure to obey his orders will mean death by firing squad, but when this fails to motivate Charlie, Hanley contemplates shooting Charlie himself. In our production, I actually point my rifle at young Ross Arnott, and the looks of fear on Ross and Sam’s faces are gripping. This, however, is not the end.
Hanley leaves them in the crater, where Charlie stays to look after his brother and makes him promise to look after Molly should the worst happen. Hanley survives the attack and returns to the crater to take Charlie into custody. The scene smoothly transitions back to the cell, only now it’s Charlie’s cell. The audience has been led to believe that it is Tommo facing the firing squad, when all along he has been contemplating the fate of his beloved brother. There is an intense scene between the two as they have their final conversation, superbly acted by both Sam and Ross.
In the original script, an unnamed guard comes to take Charlie away offstage, gives the order and gunshots are heard, all offstage. Our directors were having none of that. Firstly they had Hanley be the one to lead Charlie away and take him to a post at the centre of the stage. I have no shame in admitting that from technical rehearsal onwards, having to physically wrench Charlie and Tommo away from each other broke my heart, so powerful were Sam and Ross’ performances. However, my character had to remain stone-hearted. For him, this was another day at the office. Another coward who needed to be made an example of.
We staged the entire execution there onstage. I offer Charlie a blindfold, then shrug when he refuses. I then pin a white square of fabric to his shirt. A target over his heart. I then march away and await my cue to give the order. “Present. Ready. Aim. Fire”. Four words. Four little words that, for me, were harder to deliver onstage than any lengthy monologue. These would have been the last words these men heard.
At the end, every member of the cast joins us onstage. As we turn to face Charlie, the Last Post is played. Then, ever so slowly, poppies begin to fall from the ceiling. The feedback we had from the audience every night was overwhelming, and every last bit of praise for our cast and team was well deserved. We truly bonded during this production, coming together to tell a powerful story that needed to be told.
I am aware that it is overwhelmingly easy to look back and judge the mentality of the past. Issues such as mental health and trauma simply weren’t discussed. It wasn’t part of the national identity. However, the fact remains that we, as a nation, shot over 300 men and then effectively dismissed their deaths for decades afterwards. As I said, these men were traumatised. Beyond horrified by weapons, conditions and methods of warfare that had never been seen before. Technology advanced too quickly to meet a conflict that happened simply because tensions had reached a breaking point in Europe. Nations squared up to each other and formed teams, all ready for a scrap that would be over by Christmas. A scrap that lasted four years and cost millions of lives.
We honour the fallen and rightly so, and I am grateful for the fact that we now acknowledge and honour the men who fell at our own hands.