Chapter, Cardiff, Wed 1 Sep 2004 £3 on the door
Patrick Jones caused quite a stir with his first play, Everything Must Go, a few years ago – an angry, lyrical, passionate lament for the lost values of traditional socialism that got a big, powerful opera-style production from Phil Clark at the Sherman Theatre.
The contrast between that loud, visually-exciting and energetic show and the latest play production to come from this poet couldn’t be starker. The opener for an ambitious series of small-scale readings of new Welsh drama (Alan Osborne’s shamefully neglected Merthyr Trilogy, work from Edinburgh award-winner Mark Jenkins, Lewis Davies and Ian Rowlands are to follow), this was a trimmed-down minimalist two-hander staged in Chapter’s smaller studio rather than the main-stage spectacular that was Everything Must Go.
Directed by film and tv veteran Karl Francis, The War is Dead Long Live the War, however, comes across as no less angry or lyrical or passionate a denouncement of society, although this time the subject is not so much the loss of ideology but the timeless horrors of war and the way that war persuades us to hate others.
Set, we soon guess, in a kind of limbo between life and death during the Iraq occupation, two soldiers debate – or rather present opposing views of – the effects of armed conflict. One is a gungo-ho boyo, racist, sexist, Sun-reading, stereotypical squaddie from today, the other an erudite, despairing poet shot for desertion at the end of the Great War.
The deal is simple and familiar: the dead poet is stuck in limbo until he can persuade another soldier to take his place – and to do that he has to persuade his modern-day counterpart to admit that war is wrong and simply makes people turn to hate.
It’s a tough task and, frankly, we aren’t really convinced that Jones’s modern soldier, fed on a diet of reality tv, quiz shows and Playstation and trained to call murder “collateral damage”, is really ripe for conversion by his Wilfred Owenish predecessor.
That lack of credibility is but one problem with this play – the characterisation can seem crude and patronising, the polarity of the attitudes as revealed in the contrasting cultural references and language is too pat, there is no real dramatic tension and we learn nothing new.
This spare production from Karl Francis, with Paul Amos and Chris Lennard as the black-and-white antagonists, does make us concentrate on the words (something that can get diminished in larger-scale productions), always the strong point of Jones’s limited stage output, but it sounds to me too trimmed, too crudely oppositional.
I like Jones’s writing (his book Fuse I find an impressive collection) and I have no problems with theatre that operates between lyricism and realism, or one that is blatantly polemical, but this struck me as simply not complex enough, not subtle enough, not theatrical enough – not that it couldn’t be, just that in this form at least the theme needs more space for the arguments to be more interesting.
Still, it’s an ongoing project, this The War is Dead Long Live the War production, and the work deserves to be developed: there’s too little committed poetic theatre to let this be dismissed as unfinished business.