Oh What A Lovely War, Theatre Royal Stratford East
There can’t be many productions playing in London that begin with an announcement that the evening’s entertainment will be dedicated to Tony Benn – a statement followed by an unprompted and hearty ovation. With top price tickets for the revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit with, soon to be Dame, Angela Lansbury clocking in at £92.50 (plus booking fee, naturally) one can’t begin to imagine why the trend hasn’t caught on.
Somewhere Michael Gove would be pursing his lips at the news and busying himself with the retrieval of the hatchet he had carefully placed in Boris Johnson’s back before steadying himself for another swing at the leftist establishment. This is the combined massed ranks of the cultural elite and academia who have the temerity, if his recent diatribe is to be believed, to suggest that Britain is not necessarily as ‘great’ as Mr Gove thinks it is.
Mr Gove is one of those unfortunate politicians that have managed to hold onto the illusion of the Edwardian gentleman that saw Britain truly as the empire on which the sun never sets and, unlike those pesky Europeans from across the channel, a country that left behind a colonial legacy of democracy, fair play and cricket. No matter that there are those in Kenya and Malaysia who may choose to disagree with this assessment.
That people still express these opinions in the 21st century points to the continuing necessity of productions like Oh What A Lovely War. 50 years from its debut, 100 years from the start of World War One, it is clear that proximity to power still seems to blind our political leaders to some painful home truths about our nation’s history. Indeed the myopia of Mr Gove is not a million miles from the delusions of Field Marshall Haig that allowed him to happily order men to walk into the field of fire whilst declaring there must be ‘no squeamishness over losses’.
There is no-one who can seriously engage in the content of Oh What A Lovely War and see a show that reflects at best an ‘ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’.
It may be true that Littlewood’s original production could have at least mentioned that the sense of traditional values of a large part of the embedded aristocracy meant that they were among the first to volunteer for the front and as a result suffered absolutely catastrophic losses, and far disproportionate to any other social class.
However this is a straw man argument and deliberately ignores the fact that the show quite clearly shows a deep and abiding love of Britain, and most particularly the men and women of Britain. It shows only compassion for the hapless men who were destined to be pinned between German machine gun fire and the equally lethal artillery of their own lines. It demonstrates every virtue that Mr Gove accuses it of undermining. There is never any doubting that Littlewood believes in the courage and virtue of the men who signed up to go to war, even when the lies and insanity of decision-making of their superiors, far from the front, must have been clear to them.
Has the show lost its power? Part of what made the original a revelation was that these attitudes were genuinely radical. They were telling stories that felt totally anti-establishment, that did not fit with the myth of the just and true war, of heroic stands and grand plans. However the seismic shift in history scholarship, away from the ‘great man’ theory of leadership and towards the narratives of everyday men and women has meant that World War One has been mined from every conceivable angle.
We now know ‘Tommy’s story’ inside-out; we recognise the deprivations of the trenches and the incompetence of the commanders. Increasingly the pendulum has begun to swing towards the middle-ground and new arguments highlight the complexity of the war and go further than the cheap jibes and easy solution found on both sides of the debate. This then begs the question of whether there is still a purpose for Littlewood’s production or has its iconic status turned it into the very thing that it probably most wants to avoid – something co-opted by the establishment as one of the official narratives for understanding the war?
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