There is such a wealth of primary source material from the Great War that it is very difficult to approach any drama set in the period, let alone a stilted period piece such as Allan Monkhouse’s The Conquering Hero.
A knowledgable modern audience will immediately think of Sassoon and Rivers or of course the poetry written by both men and women at the time. An ignorant audience, if such there be, will find it impossible to comprehend most of the characters as three dimensional people, not least because they have been directed in a stylised manner and mostly stand on soapboxes to spout at each other rather than displaying complex emotions.
There is a crude device whereby the pre-war argument with which the play opens is played in near-darkness, as is the third scene in a barn behind the German lines. This reinforces the difficulty in connecting with any of the characters from the beginning, with the possible exception of Paul Shelley’s likeable Colonel Rokeby, the professional soldier who has never seen combat, and Jonathan Christie’s pacifist vicar Stephen Rokeby.
The women are, without exception, hard and unsympathetic. It is difficult to believe that Helen and Christopher are betrothed: they don’t seem to like each other very much. It is hardly surprising that Helen fails to connect with Christopher months later after he has been through a year of war. If Christopher’s intellectual pacifism seems mere posturing, his decision to enlist seems incredible, notwithstanding being goaded as a coward by the footman Dakin. There is no sense that he has travelled anywhere emotionally or even that it is a spur of the moment decision. What Christopher reveals is his inherent weaknesses, although the play opens with grandiloquent statements about the rights and writings of war. We learn nothing of the major discussions following a year of war and many bereavements, as if Monkhouse loses the courage of his convictions. Maybe they were self-evident to an audience of 1923, but they make the play seem lopsided.
This is ultimately played with full drawing-room manners. There is never any sense that we are eavesdropping on a real family or that we feel their intense tragedy. They are ciphers for the frustrations of the futility of that terrible war but simply do not touch us.
This might have fared better with television-fidelity production but with the women uncorseted and with very odd, non-period hair (quirkily flat with poking out buns and all too evident dyed blonde with dark roots) it hasn’t a hope. The hats were all-too modern in spite of attempts at period-style dressing and the uncredited maid with flaming red hair looked as if she had been dragged through a hedge backwards.
All in all, an evening that doesn’t really provoke thought and is only useful as a period curiosity that shows us how many dramatist failed to deal with such an horrific subject.
Performed at the Orange Tree Theatre until the 9th June.