Review: Unicorns Almost, Army @ the Fringe

How to do justice to the life of a poet? Should you tell the biography, or wrestle with the art? Owen Sheers’ life of Keith Douglas, as directed by John Retallack, sets up camp – literally – in the former. You enter the theatre as though to a roomy bivouac in the desert, and Dan Krikler performs him as a hesitant, vulnerable man, even if someone of engaging detached eloquence. The poems create moments of quiet and introspection. But… can this really be the unlikely English Rimbaud who ran away to war? 

He gazes from the poster with a fizzing confrontational stare that goes unrepresented in the play. And for all its elaboration the setting doesn’t do justice to Alamein or to Douglas’s imagination: sandbags and a desk are the paraphernalia of Blackadder, and WW1 cliché. Douglas belonged to another era, and he knew it. He analyzed the hard trauma that technology brought to warfare: his masterpiece ‘How To Kill’ sits you down with a sniper to look through the sights and pull the trigger. It has a painful and compelling contemporary resonance. He understood the casual cruelty that mass mobilization inflicts on individuals, and how the British army reproduces the British class system to the point of parody. He used his art as a form of self-immunization from all-pervasive state and military propaganda.

So, it is strange indeed to experience this vision within a working military barracks. You pass under canvas, past photographs, books and even a genuine letter, into a space that feels eerily like a museum. And when you leave you are surrounded by actual soldiers in actual camouflage. Do these men and women share Douglas’s disgust at the dirty business of warfare? Have they even read him? For sure it’s weird and interesting, but I fear that the Douglas on show is less rebel and artist, than regimental memory.

The other great literary talent to emerge from the desert war, alive to its violent absurdity was Spike Milligan. Another difficult, gifted neurotic, whose entire life trembles with the aftershock of battle.  While this show gives you the facts of a life, a more exploring biographical account would be honest about the post-traumatic stress which Douglas obviously suffered, and frankly, less sentimental.

Otherwise, just stick to the art. The work is terrifying. Those poems are grenades.

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