"Regeneration" is an adaptation for stage by Nicholas Wright of the title book of Pat Barker's "Regeneration trilogy" of books. The time is almost 100 years ago during World War I (a title only used with hindsight of World War II, years after the conflict and never during it). To those living through it, it was simply known as "The War" and slightly after it often referred to as "The Great War", or "The War to End All Wars". The place is Craiglockhart Army Hospital in Edinburgh.
Craiglockhart is at this time (1917) a hospital pursuing a pioneering approach to the treatment of battle stress related conditions in officers. One of the "new way of thinking" people at the hospital is Captain Rivers (played wonderfully by Stephen Boxer). It is here that Rivers first meets the poet Siegfried Sassoon (a great performance from Tim Delap tonight). Prior to coming to Craiglockhart, Sassoon has written his declaration on the futility of the war and his opinion that it has now become a war of conquest for his country. Instead of the disgrace of a court martial, Sassoon has with much help from his friend and great writer and poet Robert Graves (Christopher Brandon) been sent instead to Craiglockhart to deal with the "battle stress" that caused the declaration to be written in the first place (well that was the official story). Sassoon comes from a privileged background with many connections and as well as sharing many of these social conenctions, we learn that Graves has "connections in the War Office". Sassoon does, however, return to France after his treatment at Craiglockhart - partly to ensure that a poet is there to honestly record the war and be an honest voice to the conflict that the manufactured propaganda of home is not giving.
Treatment at Craiglockhart is set against a background where the life expectancy of a british officer in France is only three months (even less for the non officer classes). Both sides of the conflict in France are losing men faster than they can replace them, so long term convalescence is not an option open to the hospital.
It is while at Craiglockhart that Siegfried Sasson meets the fledgling poet Wilfred Owen (played powerfully by Garmon Rhys). During their time (and growing friendship) at Craiglockhart, Sasson guides Owen in the development of his poetry and in particular his poem "Anthem For Dead Youth". This of course with the suggestion of a title change from Sassoon becomes the great anti-war poem "Anthem For Doomed Youth".
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are of course not the only patients at the hospital, and the play introduces us to a few of them. One of the most interesting (and one given most prominence) is Captain Billy Prior (Jack Monaghan). Captain Prior is the odd one out here as his rank has been earned by "battlefield promotions" and not by entering the army as one of the "officer class".
The work here at Craiglockhart is very experimental in its approach and we see just how enlightened this work is when Captain Rivers visits London and watches the sheer brutality of electric shock treatment being applied to a mute soldier to restore his speech. Despite the appalling brutality of the treatment, Rivers records in his memo that they are both in the end serving the same goal and that is to get men back onto the battlefield as soon as possible. To treat them of the horrors that brought them to their breakdowns only to send them back to those horrors again.
There is a lot going on in this play, and I do not want to give too much away in this review. I am not giving anything away here by saying that sadly Wilfred Owen returned to France and was shot a week before The Armistice. This is a powerful piece of theatre that just pulls the audience into the world of Craiglockhart. Simon Godwin as director has done his job here and brought everything together to somehow re-create at least a small part of the despair these men were going through. Very simple and effective sets by Alex Eales are aided by great lighting effects designed by Lee Curran.
You do not have to know anything about "The War Poets" to go and watch this play. As a piece of theatre this play stands on its own two feet and is just as much about the horrors of the war as it is about the poets. There are also many social class issues raised here too. Although every soldier may have fought together and unbelievable numbers on all sides of the social divide been killed and wounded, it was after all fought as a British Army ruled by a huge divide of rank and file soldiers and privileged officer classes. Also, a war certainly in the early fought by a military elite class that tried to use battle tactics from their own military experiences that were totally useless to the highly mechanised guns and artillery that this conflict was using on both sides and forcing both sides into stalemate trench warfare. The concept that the great cavalry charges of yesterday (they even tried to charge tanks), or that sending men over the top in straight lines (to be cut down almost instantly by enemy machine guns) were over seemed not to enter the minds of military strategists.
It is of course 100 years this year since the start of "The Great War" and watching this play just gives you a tiny glimpse into what those men endured.