THE poignancy of Irwin Shaw’s play Bury The Dead, first performed 82 years ago, is ramped up a notch or five by the 100th anniversary of World War 1 and the impending Remembrance Sunday on November 11.
The play, currently being revived by the ground-breaking Finborough Theatre, highlights the cruelty of war, extinguishing young soldiers’ lives (farmers, poets, car mechanics) before they have been lived.
Lives that six ‘dead’ soldiers believe should never have been ended for a mere ‘four bloody yards of mud’. Hence their refusal to be laid to rest and covered with six feet of mud.
An attack on the futility of war? Maybe. But more devastatingly, it highlights its sheer waste. Lives cut off before they have had a chance of blossoming. Dreams unfulfilled. Relationships wrecked. Relationships ended without proper closure.
Heavy duty but this is a remarkable revival of an outstanding play written by Shaw when he was in his early 20s and way before he enjoyed success with his novels The Young Lions and The Troubled Air.
A play where the ‘dead’ soldiers who refuse to die are eventually visited by their loved ones, sisters or mothers and urged to take their place among the dead. The stories that unfold as a result are sobering – regrets over past mistakes (not having children and spending too much time down at the local bar) and reasons why the dead refuse to lie down and accept their fate (books to be read, women’s voices to be listened to, beauty to be admired).
Rafaella Marcus has done a remarkable job in adapting this play to work within the confines of the Finborough. Shoe horning par excellence although sometimes the stage resembles Bank Tube Station at rush hour as a stream of actors march on, off and back on stage.
The set is clever, framed by a burial site (pit like) for those World 1 American soldiers who have fallen. There are also some wonderful costumes, none more so than the white shirts of the six casualties who refuse to die. Shirts embroidered with red stitching to mark their bloody end. Verity Johnson (set and costume designer) deserves great credit (a medal on any other occasion).
The acting is good with most actors playing a variety of roles. It is a vibrant, youthful cast with a touch of experience thrown in to depict the generals in the worst possible light. Natalie Winsor is eye-catching as a whore, a feisty journalist who refuses to toe the ‘official’ line, and a lot more besides.
Malcolm Ward was born to be a First General while Guy Warren-Thomas makes a compassionate captain who stands up for the dead and highlights that behind every soldier there is a back story. In his case, a career as a scientist and philosopher.
Of many standout singing voices, Liam Harkins (one of the soldiers responsible for burying the six who refuse to be dead) hits all the right notes. We are even treated to a rousing version of Swing Low (eat your heart out Twickenham).
There are some wonderful lines in this play. ‘Did it hurt much John?’ asks Bess Schelling (Winsor again) when she gets to meet her dead husband (Tom Larkin). Over and over again.
‘Too many books I have not read,’ says Morgan Blake (Liam Harkins), explaining his reason to wife Julia (Sioned Jones) for not wanting to be buried. ‘You could have been a great writer,’ states Julia.
‘I’m going to walk the world and look at long legged girls,’ says Levy (Luke Dale).
‘Ask the general, how would he like to die at 20?’ We did not give you permission for us to leave [this world].’
Fantastic fare. Bury The Dead is a triumph. A play of the moment. Thought-provoking. Heart-breaking.