IT took 17 years to get from the notebook of playwright and poet Tony Harrison to the stage. Then another 26 years to be revived.
Yet the Finborough Theatre’s production of Square Rounds shows that Harrison’s play has lost none of its edge or relevance. Strip away the poetry and some of the farce that mars the play’s first half and you have a play that looks at the genius of human kind. The brains both to take forward humankind and simultaneously to destroy it. Scary progress, with the threat of mass destruction never far away, waiting in the wings.
Director Jimmy Walters knows Harrison’s work intimately, having directed The Trackers of Oxyhynchus one and a half years ago at the Finborough. He has been true to Harrison’s intentions with Square Rounds, employing an all-female cast and using verse throughout – in part acknowledgement to the low regard that some of the characters in the play (especially explosives inventor Hudson Maxim) had of poets even though they (Hudson in particular) indulged in poetry themselves.
The play is not easy to follow as it flits between both time – pre and during the First World War, 1860s and late 20th century – and location (England, Germany and China). A toilet is employed as a time travelling Tardis to connect the play’s various strands. Although not as effective as Doctor Who’s version, it just about works.
The play’s lynchpins are a series of quite brilliant inventors. At the hub is Fritz Haber (a commanding Philippa Quinn) who came up with the Haber-Bosch process that paved the way for the production of nitrogen fertilisers, still essential in providing food for half of the world’s population. Sadly, his brain was also used to develop the gas that slaughtered millions of men in the First World War.
Despite the protestations of his wife Clara Immerwahr (Gracy Goldman), Haber is convinced that his gas is a more humane killer of beings than bullets. It is a conviction that triggers decimation on the killing fields of France, personal tragedy and ultimately leads to the use of gas by the Nazis in the Second World War to exterminate the Jewish race (Haber was Jewish).
We are also introduced to physicist Sir William Crookes (Rujenne Green) and wife Lady Nellie (Amy Marchant) who ends standing up in a coffin – in acknowledgement of Sir William’s interest in spiritualism. Eva Feiler is an effective Justus von Liebig – father of the fertiliser industry – as she (he) declares that England wastes its excrement by using the toilet rather than using its residue on its agricultural fields. At times, she (unintentionally) reminded me of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (top hat and all that).
In opposition to Haber are brothers Maxim – Hudson (Amy Marchant) and Sir Hiram (Letty Thomas). The latter was the inventor of the Maxim Gun, the first portable fully automatic machine gun. Marchant gives Hudson both authority and strength. Thomas’s Sir Hiram is rarely without his inhaler (yes, his invention) before collapsing and taking an age to die.
In the Maxims’ discussions, we learn of the Puckle gun that scandalously could fire square as well as spherical bullets – square ones used against the Turks, spherical against Christians. Racist bullets. Awful.
It is the play’s second half that makes Square Rounds compelling. Especially when Haber defends his killing gas before Clara. ‘Gas would get my vote if my son was a victim, ‘he argues. ‘Gas, gas, gas.’ ‘You’re supping with the devil,’ retorts Clara, acknowledging the Kaiser’s hatred of Jews whom he describes as ‘vermin’.
There are some lovely set and projection designs by Daisy Blowers and Arnim Friess respectively. The ‘munitionettes’ – munitions’ workers – are dressed like the handmaids in Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale while there is haunting background footage of men going over the top in the First World War and gas canisters being thrown.
Some of the acting is a little over the top and occasionally voices screech. But Square Rounds is a resounding success. A rather chilling tale.
Photos by Robert Boulton