The Christmas Truce at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: Play Review

by Special Guest Writer Samuel Kim

Now, I donโ€™t go to the theatre nearly as much as I would like, but even I can tell that staging a play about trench warfare is a tall order, especially for children, and especially during the festive period. Written by Phil Porter and directed by Erica Whitman, the play centres on the famous truce in 1914 when British and German sides ceased fire for Christmas.

This is well trodden territory; a certain supermarket advert has already called โ€˜dibsโ€™ on it with its saccharine sweet interpretation. โ€˜The Christmas Truceโ€™ takes a more realistic approach to the story, and becomes all the more poignant for it.

We follow Second Lieutenant Bairnsfather (Joseph Kloska), real life eccentric artist, and the men under his command through training to the front lines. Opening with a summer scene of tranquility, the play moves quickly and contrasts jovial optimism with the harsh realities of war. The cast should be praised for how quickly they establish a relationship with the audience making their hardships all the more resonant. These scenes depicting warfare are also well-staged with the clever use of lighting and writing as men face as they go โ€˜over the topโ€™.

The play really comes into its own in the second half, managing to reinvigorate the overdone story of the truce and showing how unprecedented it really was. There were several tense moments as the two sides met for the first times punctuated laugh genuine laughs, after all, itโ€™s still a childrenโ€™s play. A striking moment comes as the men begin to gather their dead from no manโ€™s land. Men of both sides heave each other up, and the shared lines in both English and German serve to reinforce the common experience these men share. Powerful stuff.

Parallel to this, we follow the experiences of a nurse entering military service, with its own poignancy and its own โ€˜truceโ€™. Again, the play emphasises the experiences of men and women who act out the decrees of their superiors.

The performance is peppered with engaging performances from the whole cast, especially from Kloska, and Gerard Horan, playing Bairnsfatherโ€™s creation, Old Bill. The clever staging and excellent writing is augmented through the excellent musical scoring and strong vocal performances throughout the play. This culminates in a final melange of carols as the snow falls onstage. The ending gunshots are indicative of a play set out to entertain, but unafraid to address the true human cost of war. A true pleasure to watch, at any age.

(photo credit: http://www.coventrytelegraph.net)

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