15 May 2012

The Conquering Hero at the Orange Tree

The Orange Tree is never bad, is usually very good and is sometimes excellent. The Conquering Hero is excellent.

We start the story in a country house on the cusp of the First World War. The father of the house, retired from the service in which he never saw action, and his peers are looking forward to the war to come as a chance to show the might and right of Britain.

His daughter, who is married to a soldier is equally convinced, but his two sons are not. One, Steven, is a priest and does not see how Jesus could support the war and the other Christopher, is an artist and feels more affinity with the artists of Germany than with other Britains.

Chris struggles to understand the war and struggles harder to explain his antipathy to it to the others.

One by one everybody falls under the war's spell, even Steven does his part by joining the Red Cross. When the loyal family footman signs-up for service Christopher makes a sudden and unexpected decision to sign-up too.

Then it's time for a short break and a Becks.

We return to a darkened theatre that has been transformed from a comfortable home to a miserable (German) trench where Christopher staggers lost, captured and then recaptured.

The war ends and Christopher returns home to a hero's welcome that he avoids by taking another route to the house - the brass band that was appropriate at the recruitment fair now seems inappropriate.

Not everybody makes it home.

The family find it as hard to deal with a shell-shocked and battle weary Christopher as they did with a pacifist one, and their reaction is much the same. They try to understand him but ignoring him is easier. His now proud father suggests that he will be better after a little rest but as the play ends their is little doubt that this is untrue.

I made the bold claim earlier that The Conquering Hero is excellent. This is why.

The before-and-after structure of the play allows us to explore anti-war themes, and people's reactions to them, from two different perspectives. Beforehand it is an intellectual and spiritual argument against the concept of two countries, once friends, going to such extremes to resolve a dispute. Afterwards it is the impact on individuals that is highlighted, the killed and the killers.

Christopher carries this change with him while the other characters remain the same throughout (or die). And so the play relies an awful lot on the actor who plays Christopher.

Simon Harrison is blinding. He is equally convincing as an effete artist and as a broken soldier. There were genuine tears on several faces in the audience at the end. The actress playing his girl friend looked fit to blub too.

I'll say it just one last time, The Conquering Hero is excellent.

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