Bristol Old Vic
PHOTOS: Dan Krikler in Unicorns Almost. Coloured images taken at the Edinburgh Fringe
All dead on Western Front
Acclaimed Welsh poet, Owen Shears' monologue Unicorns, Almost, staged at The Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, September 7, is set to be as successful as Pink Mist his harrowing play about on deployment on Afghanistan battlefields.
Forgotten World War 2 poet, Keith Douglas, is the focus. He died aged just 24, three days after the D-Day invasion and more or less forgotten about for the next 70 years.
Superbly performed by Dan Krikler, under the confident direction of John Retallack, Shears, who watched the play on preview night, delineates the poet’s background: his hero army father leaving with the family nanny, his mother struck down by encephalitis when Keith was four and in ill health forever after.
Lonely, with a talent for drawing and a gift for poetry saw Douglas study at Oxford where his room was said to be ankle-deep in poetry drafts, as were his pockets on the battlefields.
Adoring horses, he joined the cavalry only to discover horses were now toad-like tanks that continually leaked oil and broke down.
Douglas’ short memoir, Alamain To Zem Zem reveals how he broke free from his dull desk job in Alexandria and, against orders, headed for the western desert battlefields of Egypt. It felt a relief, beautiful, romantic and terrifying.
Owen uses many of Douglas’s stunning, claustrophobic descriptions of being cramped in a super-heated tank with two other soldiers, armed to the teeth and trundling, vulnerably and slowly over sand so glassily soft, soldiers sank up to their knees with each step.
Curiously, given the ear-splitting noise inside this metal hulk, Douglas describes the experience as eerily quiet. He watches the desert through a telescope, witnesses the silence of contorted, fly-covered dead men, planes appearing to drop glitter (they were bombs) and tanks like toy boats, dipping and surging. Owen has a sure grip on this action and turns it into an riveting performance.
Douglas’ poetry is included: terse, rhythmical and powerful - finding a week’s dead enemy soldier’s photograph of his girlfriend, the beautiful Egyptian fiancé who left Douglas for his best friend, carpets of blue flowers, as far as the eye can see, which perfume his tank that could become his sarcophagus.
Krikler is perfect as Douglas romancing, dancing, writing, shaking, or rescuing a fellow soldier whose leg was blown off - despite being in the line of fire before being flung from a trip wire that saw him hospitalised for weeks writing crafting poems like How tT Kill:
Now in my dial a glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
His mother knows,...
Returning from Egypt, Douglas finds another love (he was engaged four times) but struggles to put into words the ‘long pain’ he has endured, like a beast on his back, as he readies to embark for France. This writer’s block is beautifully portrayed by Shears.
Douglas, in command of more than 100 men, survived the bloody, brutal Normandy invasion. Three days later a mortar exploded way above his head. A single splinter entered his brain, killing him instantly, without leaving a mark. A fate he had strangely foreshadowed in On A Return From Egypt:
The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wrath,
I fear what I shall find.
It wasn’t instant fame after death. His collection of poems only came out 1951. Interest in the war had waned. It seems his mother went into a bookshop, six years later and not a copy was sold.
Owen Shears has beautifully resurrected this intriguing, passionate and fascinating soldier poet’s powerful voice.
Supported by Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation
Unicorns, Almost is on at the Weston Studio in Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, September 7, at 8pm nightly with a matinee on Saturday.
Tickets £15 and recommended for aged 12+.
For more information and booking phone: 0117 987 7877 or email firstname.lastname@example.org