Review: For King and Country, Southwark Playhouse

RATING: ★★★★

When I was at the Southwark Playhouse to see The Rink, I saw a poster on the wall for For King and Country that showed men in World War I uniforms and I went home and booked a ticket immediately after the show finished. World War I has always been one of my favorite periods to study and art written during or about it has long fascinated me. This moving play definitely didn't let me down.

For King and Country is a court room drama set on the Western Front in 1918. Young Private Hamp is on trial for desertion, a representation of the three thousand men who were tried for desertion or cowardice during the war. This production by Dilated Theatre, directed by Paul Tomlinson, is a surprisingly thrilling piece for a WWI play without any front-line action.

The play, written by John Wilson, was first performed in 1964 and was later adapted into the film King and Country. This is the first time it's been performed in London in over thirty years and it commemorates the anniversary of the war beginning in 1918 in support of the Royal British Legion.

In the play, simple Northern boy Private Hamp has deserted somewhat unconsciously and been court-martialed. When Captain Hargreaves is assigned to his defense, he quickly realizes that poor mental health (the term used at the time was "shell shock") was the cause. There is a tension that builds throughout the play as Hamp refuses to believe in the outcome that everyone else expects: death by execution.

Adam Lawrence exudes honesty and simplicity as Private Hamp, though it's clear that there is a general unease underneath his cheery surface. He makes it easy to see why the other soldiers treat him so sympathetically, as he earnestly insists that the trial might go in his favor. Lloyd Everitt, on the other hand, exudes intelligence and gives a beautiful arc as Captain Hargreaves goes from defending Hamp from a sense of duty to a belief that he doesn't deserve to be punished for something done while in a fragile mental state brought on by war. 

The supporting cast do a great job of backing these two men up, providing a range of beliefs on Hamp's innocence. Andrew Cullum plays the Medical Officer O'Sullivan who insists that Hamp is not actually suffering from shell shock but who seems to teeter on the edge of a breakdown himself. 

I was very impressed with Eugene Simon's portrayal of Padre, the young preacher sent to provide support for Hamp, who struggles to reconcile his belief in God in the face of such suffering. Best known for his work on Game of Thrones, Eugene gives a beautiful performance. Even a few weeks later, I'm still haunted by the way he cries when Hamp is told of his fate. 

Jacqueline Gunn's immersive set keeps the audience firmly set within the front lines of the Western Front, even if the action takes place within a court room. It adds to the somber mood of the play and creates a sense of the danger that lurks outside the room. Robbie Butler's lighting design and Philip Matejtshuk's sound design are best on display during the scene changes, during which the ensemble recreate snippets of battle scenes, moving through the space. 

The play has much to say about PTSD and mental health, which are incredibly relevant today, as much of it centers around different characters' opinions on whether or not Hamp truly has shell shock. It also seems a commentary on the effects that war has on men, as we see that many of the characters and not just Hamp are starting to lose their grip. 

The 306 British soldiers who were executed during World War I for desertion or cowardice were officially given a pardon by the British government in 2006. For King and Country is a touching tribute to them that forces the audiences to consider how many men died because of the war's effect on their mental health. If you've any interest in World War I, I highly recommend going to see it before it closes on 21 July. 

Photo Credit: Alex Brenner 
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