Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Howard Brenton has such a way now with popular plays on big subjects. One of his recent successes in this theatre, Anne Boleyn, combined raciness with a radical re-evaluation of Boleyn’s role in the creation of the King James’ Bible.
Now he’s done something similar with Harold Gillies, the Army surgeon whose work remaking the faces of horrifically disfigured soldiers and airmen helped pave the way for what we know today as plastic surgery.
For a new generation of audiences, which the Globe so often attracts, the history of Gillies and his pioneering work must come as a shock. John Dove’s lively production goes out of its way brilliantly, too, to bring the realities of his work home with the descriptions of the injuries suffered by the young men from gas and shrapnel spoken, eyeball to eyeball, from right in the middle of the audience, on the Globe’s thrust stage. You can’t mistake the intimacy of the moment.
Even if parts of Dr Scroggy’s War carries, in this centenary year, rather too familiar echoes – a mix of BlackAdder, Downtownish Edwardiana and The Crimson Field with its ingénue VADs – Brenton turns cliché into something more unexpected by the introduction of the phantom figure of Dr Scroggy – Gillies’ Scottish alter ego created to help cheer up his patients with forbidden levity – and a quixotic vein of irony. At one point, Jack Twigg, Brenton’s young working class officer hero turns to the audience and says, `you know what’s going to happen now. I’m going to lose my face.’
It cuts right through any faux theatricality and creates a distancing effect in a story that despite its military critique, sometimes veers towards sentimentality and also contains disconcertingly un-Brenton like salutes to English patriotism (given peculiar resonance in this Referendum week) and ideas of glory and fighting for your country. Ultimately, even this unexpected sentiment undergoes re-assessment in the light of Twigg’s true ancestry.
Dr Scroggy’s War too is blessed with James Garnon, Brenton’s tourette suffering James VI in Anne Boleyn, whose Gillies and Scroggy stirringly conveys all the eccentricity and deep humanity of this most remarkable unsung hero of WW1.
First published in Reviewsgate Sept 2014