Imagine yourself back to 4 August 1914. Germany’s strength is increasing and everyone is anxious. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria is dead. The French and Russians are already mobilising troops against Kaiser Wilhelm II. Britain, as of midnight, will be at war with Germany. Everything will change.
Following on from the Orange Tree Theatre’s production last year of Monkhouse’s Mary Broome (also directed by Auriol Smith), in Allan Monkhouse’s The Conquering Hero we see how the declaration of WWI affects one family, the Rokebys. Son-in-law Frank (Jack Sandle) is already enlisted and in uniform, and Margaret, his wife (Claudia Elmhirst), wants every able-bodied English male to follow her husband’s example. Steven Rokeby (Jonathan Christie), a son and a pastor, speaks out against war from his pulpit. Christopher Rokeby (Simon Harrison), another son and a writer and poet, is caught in agonising indecision. “Why won’t you enlist?” asks his militant sister Margaret. “Do you think yourself too clever to be shot?” His fiancée Helen Thorburn (Miranda Keeling) shows him Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s On Refusal of Aid Between Nations and asks “You’ll go if the poets lead?” “There are German poets, too”, is Christopher’s answer.
Eventually Steven signs up to serve in the Red Cross, despite his objections to the conflict. Christopher is left – the black sheep of the family – with all the pressure of expectation upon him. When even the family butler Dakin (Christopher Heyward) enlists, Christopher is suddenly galvanised. He pushes to the head of the queue – “using the last of my aristocratic privilege” – his name is down and he is off to France.
The Conquering Hero enjoys one standout feature, at least for me; I have never seen a play set so very much in the dark. The first act opens in a – deliberately – ill-lit room and act two opens, again deliberately, in an almost pitch black barn. In this scene what little light there is reveals the fact that Megson, the English-soldier-on-the-battlefield, is actually the Rokeby family butler doubling up on roles. There is other doubling with minor parts, but as Christopher Heyward was instantly recognisable in his new role, it confused the scene. Another slight issue, although this time spatial, is that on a small stage like the Orange Tree’s – which I otherwise enjoy immensely – it is difficult to fit up to eight actors (and quite a lot of furniture) without some section of the audience being blocked; I had to lean, a man to my right had to do some (really very noticeable) leaning and another man in the opposite bank of seats was also on a significant tilt. The text is intense and generally wordy; played here at an insistently high emotional pitch, it really helps the audience’s focus to see the character’s faces.
A small point – noticed by a companion – to investigate: in Act One, before anyone has gone anywhere near a battlefield and before any fighting has started, one of the characters refers to ‘trench warfare’. We were unaware that there had been trench warfare in any conflict preceding WWI. Writing well after the event, is this a textual inconsistency by Monkhouse?
There was a lapse of several years between the end of the conflict and any cultural output dealing with it. The Conquering Hero appeared earlier than others of the most famous World War One works, coming out in 1923. R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End was not published until 1928 and neither Remarque’s novel Im Westen Nichts Neues (in English as All Quiet on the Western Front) nor Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms came out until 1929. The way Monkhouse takes up his topic, although engaging enough, presents nothing earth-shaking. We see that war is bad and that it ruins lives. There are some interesting moments of tension created by setting the action within the one family as son is pitted against fiancée, against father, against sister, but I don’t feel it increased my understanding of WW1 in the way that, for example, Remarque’s novel did. Perhaps the effect on Monkhouse’s contemporaries was much stronger coming, as it did, prior to much of the other WWI literature.
To adapt a phrase from Lady Romer (Joan Moon), The Conquering Hero is mainly a play about “ordinary people seeing things in an ordinary way”. Simon Harrison as Christopher Rokeby gives a well-judged performance of a tricky part – the only character who tries to break away from ‘seeing things in an ordinary way’ – and Paul Shelley is an endearingly good-tempered Colonel Rokeby. This is a solid production of a good, if slightly wordy, play. Although amusing and pathetic in its family-scale tragedy, it probably won’t set your imagination on fire.
The Conquering Hero is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 9 June. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.