Theatre Review: At All Costs – Tragedy And Trenches, Or Wood That It Could Have Been Different

March 31, 2022

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At All Costs / Directed by Janice Honeyman / The Theatre Linden, 44 5th Street, Linden, Johannesburg


Premiered in a new theatre venue – bravo Andre Stoltz for getting it off the ground – Peter Terry’s affecting one-man, one-act play about the awful, terrifying, tragically heroic Battle of Delville Wood in 1916, during the First World War, is given added intensity and intimacy by it’s surroundings, which help to make it feel like one of the best shows you see at an arts festival, where different buildings have been made into theatre spaces.

Terry has a long-standing interest in the Great War (and other conflicts), and it shows in the research as it is expressed in his monologue – he plays an older man who survived the battle as a 19-year-old and, in the course of wanting to write a book about his experiences, is discovering how much of the horror of his experiences still haunts his psyche.

There is no fable here, no attempt to place the war and its fallout into some sort of storytelling formula that will help to show audiences what lessons have been learned or who was bad and who was good. Instead, it is a memoir, sensitively and poignantly explored in real time as the protagonist, would-be author David Wells, is struck afresh by the profound sorrow of both going into the battle and then surviving it. It’s a study of PTSD without any of the artificial gloss of a film or TV series considering similar subject matter. And though this is simply a single actor speaking, the mounting body count as his tale unfolds is no less distressing than it would be if there were CGI-enabled visuals of bodies disintegrating on a screen. This is possibly because, as Wells relates the (in some cases) hour by hour details of the frontline action in the wood, he mentions each of his comrades by name, often adding layers of detail in terms of some particular foible by which they could be identified, or which made them a good friend until their untimely death.

It’s unsurprising that the major takeaway from the piece is the senseless, reckless, futile pointlessness of war, and Terry’s script also highlights how the effects, both psychological and physical, of being involved in such brutal inanity affect Wells (as a representative of all soldiers). He is one of the lucky ones, but only in a relative sense – “lucky” hardly applies to someone enduring such extreme and unrelenting suffering.

This is a play in which one man stands on stage, flanked by nothing more than a chair and a simple map of a location where thousands of men died to protect a conceptual, strategic idea of victory – at all costs. Nothing more than those simple props – and Terry’s excellent, passionate acting – is needed. At a time when live visuals of a new war, this time in Ukraine, are dominating news channels, such a reminder that we don’t learn from the lessons of history is a hard pill to swallow, but necessary medicine all the same.

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