Not About heroes – Carla Moore and the cry for a real civilization. (Theatre Review)


Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen

The greatest tragedy of the multiple horrors of war, is not the crippling desperate sadness the lost lives impose on families, nor the unspeakable that must be confronted by our treasured youth at the battles front. It is the loss of human potential to society and the world. We do not lose expendable lives in war. We loose scientists, writers, researches, presidents and geniuses. We lose Gandhi’s, Albert Einsteins, Charles Dickens’, Steve Jobs’ and Beethovens. We lose Marie Curie’s, Parmasree Warrior’s, Emily Bronte’s, Clara Schumann’s  and Aung San Suu Kyi’s . Every life lost on the battle front is essential, desperately important to the ongoing survival of our species and every death represents a refusal of this fact. We cannot afford to lose what we lose in battle, on either side of every confrontation. And the sooner we find our way to this fact, the sooner we can cure cancer, end hunger, care for our planet, heal sadness and dramatically improve our quality of living. We cannot do any of this while we allow the sacrifice of potential before it is allowed to achieve.

“This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Wilfred Owen

It is in the context of this understanding that Stephen Macdonald recreates the world between war-time poets Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in two-man play called Not About Heroes performed at The Sydney Opera House this week. The two performances, Patrick Magee as Wilfred Owen and the Roger Gimblett as Siegfried Sassoon are directed simply and beautifully by the talented Carla Moore who uses key moments in the play when the war poets recite their lines to include a backdrop of first world war images that often superimpose themselves on the actors faces as they speak the lines. The two men remain dressed in their uniforms for the duration, taking on only the simplest of costume changes to signify slight mood alterations – a helmet added to imply the battlefield, a dressing gown to evoke the mental asylum where the two men met. The rest of the performance is left to the actors to express the words of Stephen Macdonald and the two poets, as they pause to repeat the poetry with an impassioned stance. Appropriately, the moments when the poetry takes front and centre are the plays most beautiful, and surely it is the mark of a great writer, that he is willing to allow his own words to step aside for those of his chosen subject. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was invited to review a play that would be two hours of war poetry, but Stephen Macdonald’s words were the perfect platform for the right introduction to these two beautiful writers, about whom I was unfamiliar. The time sped by as I was mesmerised by the complex nature of these two vastly different men who found comfort in each others beauty when the world was at its most ugly.


This pared down, delicately nuanced production relies heavily on the performances of Gimblett and Magee who each take to their characters with a respectful relish that imbues the play with a gentle exuberance. These are refined, beautiful men, poets who delight in the delicate fabric of the beautiful. The core in each character is not easily grasped, particularly given Sassoon was a gay man and Owen (possibly) not yet out as one. The letters between Owen and his mother that relate details of the friendship were destroyed by Owen’s brother, which says a lot and prevents a lot being said together, leaving us in a supposing about the nature of what went on between the men who were so deeply important to each other. But in the end, it is the poetry that lasts and the poetry we have to cling to, no doubt the most important thing of all according to the wishes of each man. Wilfred Owen, in whatever way he saw fit, loved and idolised Siegfried Sassoon and the joy for the world is, this union was a creative one that influenced the greatest works of Owen. Magee and Gimblett each embody the sophisticated delicacy of the men, sometimes grounding that beauty in the time period, sometimes as representational of the circles they moved in. Carla Moore has elicited beautiful performances from each of them, resulting in something so refined, one sits breathlessly watching for whatever happens next.

Not About Heroes speaks of a refined time, when war was an affront to the efforts of men to reach for a higher star. The world changed when the war came to our televisions, the mediums clumsiness somehow creating more distance even as it brought it into our living rooms. There is nothing like the poetry of men who felt the war and its affects deep inside themselves, who embraced those alongside them into an alternative that had the audacity to suggest there will be a place, a time and a kind of man for whom war will be nothing more than an ancient memory.


A Mystic as Soldier

I lived my days apart,
Dreaming fair songs for God;
By the glory in my heart
Covered and crowned and shod.

Now God is in the strife,
And I must seek Him there,
Where death outnumbers life,
And fury smites the air.

I walk the secret way
With anger in my brain.
O music through my clay,
When will you sound again?

Siegfried Sassoon