a conjuring of the written and the writer

Hay Festival is deeply braided within the genesis and development of Unicorns, almost. It was a chance meeting with Louis de Bernieres at the summer festival that led to me playing the part of Wilfred Owen in his 2002 production of Not About Heroes, a play about the friendship between Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Spending the ensuing three months inhabiting the poetry and character of Wilfred Owen set a number of questions running in my mind. Why was it that the poetry of WWI (of the officers at least…) was so embedded within the public consciousness yet the same could not be said of the poetry of WWII? What kind of a theatre piece might do something to redress the balance and, perhaps most importantly, what would such a play have to say to a contemporary audience about the world today? In answer to that second question about the dramatic angle of approach of such a play I was reminded of seeing Peter Florence perform The Pity of War, his own one man show about Wilfred Owen. I must have been no more than 16 or 17 and the simple directness of witnessing Owen speak to the audience in a piece of theatre shaped about his original writings made a lasting impression. The effect was a kind of dramatic haunting, a conjuring of the written and the writer at one and the same time.

If I were to follow a lead from Peter’s Pity of War, then which WWII poet would be best-suited for such a rendering of their life and work? Before I’d even finished asking myself that question I was imagining Keith Douglas resurrected under the lights. I’d been introduced to Douglas’s poetry a few years earlier and had immediately been struck by the taut calibration of his work and, particularly, his use of direct address, his urgent demand to the reader, again and again, to ‘look’, to see beyond seeing. His letters and his prose account of his time fighting as as a tank commander in the Western Desert, From Alamein to Zem Zem, provided fertile territory for biographical and character detail, while the story of his brief life was compelling and poignant. Much like Wilfred Owen it is the story of a young poet’s accelerated education under the pressure of war and their almost Faustian pact with a conflict that would both gift them their voices, and then, with their early deaths, take them away. 

But what of that contemporary resonance? Any historical work remains inert at heart without also being a prism through which to view our lives and world today. Well, as I sat down to conjure Douglas’s voice, using a handful of his best poems as stepping stones through the story of his life, young British men in tanks were, once again, rolling across desert landscapes, this time in Iraq. The UK was embroiled in conflict and in the cultural amnesia that so often seems to accompany the drums of war a contemporary population and press, despite access to TV and internet reports, were once more failing to seethe realities of conflict - what it actually feels like and means. This gulf of perception between those who fight and those who don’t was something Douglas felt keenly and is, with poems such as ‘Vergissmeinicht’, the space his writing attempts to breach. Which it does, repeatedly, not only in the poems but also in his letters and Alamein to Zem Zem. As such, the pressure for his character to speak from the stage becomes twofold. The first pressure is personal - Douglas chose to fight on the frontline because (following the new blueprint of what being a war poet meant created by the poets of the WWI) he knew it was there he’d find his subject and his voice. In return, he hoped, his work would find a readership, would be successful in making those at home see and feel. And yet, when his mother went into her local bookshop ten years after her son’s death there were all the original copies of his Collected Poems, still on the shelf, untouched, unread. And so his work remained so, largely unknown until Ted Hughes led a gradual resurgence of interest by introducing a new Faber edition of his poems. The second pressure for Douglas to speak is more public - it is the pressure of a young man returned decades later to find that our species are still going to war, still resorting to violence to resolve their differences, still engaging in humanity’s most persistent failure and as we do so, still failing to witness the unflinching reality of what that means and the true extent of what we lose.

It is these twin pressures to speak that fuel Douglas’s presence in Unicorns, almost, a presence I only really knew would work dramatically when Jo Fiennes read the first twenty minutes of the play at an event at the Summer Hay Festival in 2005. It was then, sitting in the audience, listening to the grafting of my voice with Douglas’s that I knew this was the right medium through which to introduce people to his life and work - theatrical, lyrical yet spare, direct. But then, as is often the case, there was silence. One person plays are difficult to get produced. Other projects came along and Unicorns, almost retreated to a drawer in my desk. Until another, newer Hay institution, in the form of The Story of Books, came along wanting to create events around stories of writers, writing and publication. I got that script out of the drawer and read it again. Douglas’s voice was as fresh and as urgent as ever. It was also, I realised, telling a story about publishing as well as a story about poetry and war - a story about a young man racing against time to see his poems in print, so that his words might live beyond his life. This was a race Douglas would come to lose but which now, with thanks to the Hay Festival and The Story of Booksis at least one that an be witnessed by an audience today, along with the penetrating clarity and beauty of his poems and the poignant journey of his quest towards a poetic language in which to capture his brief experience of being alive.

Unicorns, almost returns to Hay-on-Wye for a one-off performance at Hay Festival Winter Weekend, Sunday 1 December, followed by a Q&A with Owen Sheers. Book tickets here.