15 Jul The Conquering Hero by Allan Monkhouse
Directed by Andrew Hilton
06- 12 October 2014
Production Photos © 2014 Craig Fuller
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and the University of Bristol presented a script-in-hand staging of this wonderful, but strangely neglected, play as part of the nationwide commemoration of the outbreak of WW1. It played in the Edwardian splendour of the Wills Memorial Building’s Reception Room.
‘‘The Conquering Hero is one of the finest plays about the 1st World War. It was first published and performed in 1923 although it may have been written as early as 1915. At the outbreak of war a writer, son to a military family, believes his role is to go on writing; he loathes the war and the jingoism surrounding it and is determined that civilisation should not be put on hold while vast armies slug it out in France and Flanders. But family pressure forces him to the front. His body survives – and he is welcomed home as ‘the conquering hero’ – but his experience has been very, very different.’
Andrew Hilton, Artistic Director Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
“This production marks what we hope will be a continuing and growing relationship with stf for the benefit of our students and the city more widely.”
David Alder, Director of Communications and Marketing at the University of Bristol
Piers Wehner Christopher Rokeby
Edmund Digby-Jones Stephen Rokeby
Saskia Portway Margaret Iredale
Paul Currier Captain Francis Iredale
Samantha Barron Helen Thorburn
Marc Geoffrey Dakin
Roland Oliver Colonel Rokeby
David Collins Sir John Romer
Julia Hills Lady Romer
Jack Bannell Megson
Peter Chicken or Tom Titherington German Soldier
Paul Currier A Prussian Officer
Paul Nicholson An Old Footman
Director Andrew Hilton
Production Manager Zoe Davis
Stage Manager Charlie Smalley
Producers Morag Massey and Catherine Hindson
FESTIVAL OF IDEAS POST SHOW TALK & DISCUSSION – Sunday 12th October – 6.00pm – 7.00pm
Chaired by Andrew Kelly, with stf‘s Artistic Director Andrew Hilton. Contributors from the University of Bristol: Dr Tom Beaumont, a Teaching Fellow in Modern European History, researches the political and social history of twentieth-century France, specialising in the period 1914-45; post-doctoral Reserach Fellow, Dr Nicholas Nourse’s principal discipline is musicology and 19th-century popular and street music; he was part of the university’s Connected Communities study of the WW1 Shirehampton Remount Depot. We were also delighted to be joined by Harriet Monkhouse, granddaughter of Allan Monkhouse.
★★★ Stage Talk Magazine Why is this play not better known? Like Sherriff’s much more familiar Journey’s End,Allan Monkhouse’s The Conquering Hero seeks to expose the sordid reality of warfare and attack the shallowness and ignorance of jingoistic, death-or-glory patriotism, and it does so with great conviction. First published in 1923, and apparently written as early as 1915, its scepticism and the vigorous way it challenges old certainties give it a distinctly modern tone. The opening scene is set in August 1914 and many members of the well-to-do Rokeby family are eagerly anticipating the coming conflict with Germany. They see the war as an opportunity for young men to prove their real worth, an opportunity, as Rupert Brooke put it, to turn away from a decadent peaceful world ‘grown old and cold and weary’.
Roland Oliver as Colonel Rokeby
This unquestioning enthusiasm is not shared by the two sons of the family. Stephen is a Church of England cleric and a committed pacifist; his brother Christopher, the central character of the play, is a novelist who finds single-minded commitment of any kind simplistic. He initially refuses to enlist, loathing the way that the ‘awful, compelling power’ of the war seems to have swept aside any kind of nuanced thought. Everything now seems very definite; there is no space left for argument, yet his trade is to play with ideas. He appalls his sister Margaret by wondering if it might not be such a bad thing if Germany were to succeed in invading.
Saskia Portway as Margaret Iredale
She accuses him of cowardice; his fiancée, Helen, breaks off their relationship. However, his father, Colonel Rokeby, does not condemn him. He is baffled by the subtlety of his son’s thoughts, but he knows that he is no coward and that his reluctance to fight arises from sincerely held doubt, not fear. Then Christopher surprises everyone, including himself, by enlisting. Typically, he is attracted to the paradoxical idea that perhaps the only way he can escape the war is by joining it. He survives and comes home to a hero’s welcome, but his subtle mind has proved to be too frail.
Piers Wehner is excellent as the quixotic, introspective and scrupulously honest Christopher. Though this script-in-hand production has been created in a very short period of time, he was already thoroughly in command of the role on the first night. He is well supported by a strong cast. I particularly liked Saskia Portway’s portrayal of the ferociously single-minded Margaret, who suspects her husband may have been too willing to be taken prisoner rather than do the noble thing and die fighting, but who glows with pride when hearing later that he has succumbed to wounds sustained in battle.
The acoustics in the splendid Reception Room of the Wills Memorial Building are perhaps not ideal, but I found that this did not seriously detract from this enterprising co-production from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Bristol University. Directed in-the-round by Andrew Hilton, the cast most certainly do not deliver mere readings, but give fully-fledged performances. The Conquering Hero is a fine, brave play, with perhaps greater depth than Journey’s End, and SATTF and Bristol University are to be congratulated for giving us this rare opportunity to see it. Mike Whitton