Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes is a play about poetry. It is also a play about pity. It is, of course, a play about war. But above all, it is a play about the strong friendship between two men: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
In the Theatre by the Lake’s current production, directed by Jez Pike, Owen and Sassoon are thoughtfully portrayed, not only as the great poets we recognise today, but as people, with their own fears, hopes and doubts.
Both cast members (Philip Labey as Wilfred Owen and Matt Addis as Siegfried Sassoon) portrayed this human aspect beautifully, and did a superb job of carrying the play. Their more humorous moments brought a vitality to what is essentially a very wordy play, while the inevitable tragic ending caused more than one set of tears in the audience.
As Sassoon battled against his inner turmoil, Addis’ speech at times became almost uncomfortably loud in the intimate space of the Studio Theatre, leaving Labey’s Owen like a startled deer in the brazen headlights of the older poet. Labey’s timidity during the characters’ first meeting was something any writer or creative writing student will identify with, but it was incredibly moving to watch him grow in confidence into the man that Owen was destined never to fully become.
This inevitable pathos is echoed by the simplicity of Martin Johns’ set. The backdrop of dead trees is an ever-present reminder of the war, while the carpet of Craiglockhart hospital on one side of the stage fragments into the blasted mud of the Front on the other.
There were occasions where the play shifted into an overly stylised version of itself (the opening, for example), but fortunately these moments were few and fleeting, and quickly gave way to the real meat of the production: the intimacy between the two poets.
‘The poetry is in the pity,’ reads Owen from his Preface. In Jez Pike’s production, not only poetry and pity, but drama as well, are in the chemistry between the play’s two impressive actors.