BWW Review: UNICORNS, ALMOST, Bristol Old Vic
This week marks 80 years since Britain declared war on Germany and the Second World War began. Yet the story of a young poet caught in conflict, torn between his desire to be on the front line and the safety of his desk job, is still as relevant and poignant as ever.
The Weston Studio of Bristol Old Vic hosts this one-man play written by Owen Sheers and directed by John Retallack. Unicorns, Almost stars Dan Krikler as Keith Douglas, who was a determined to write his greatest poetic works during War World Two.
The play opens with the boyish excitement of a young man off to war, eager to live out the reality of his childhood games and, more importantly, to find his muse and follow in the footsteps of poetic idols Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He sought to go "through the looking glass" and see the world from the other side of safety.
Krikler subtly and smoothly moves from this excitement, through to a manic exhilaration and fear, and finally into despair. Via this nuanced performance, he brings us along with him, and by the end of his story we are hit with the terrible futility of this young man's adventures in war.
It feels like we're in conversation with Douglas, invited into his room; there's no over-engineered speech or soliloquy to be found here. Maybe it's the lyrical, poetic way in which Sheers writes, or the clever choreography from Retallack as Krikler deftly moves around the set with the telling of his tale, but it's easy to forget at times that he is alone on the stage.
Moments of silence are punctured by rapid bursts of machine gun fire and the sound of bombers overhead, as the impressive sound and lighting design (John Nicholls and Ben Pickersgill respectively) brings you closer to the realities of war. The recorded readings of Douglas's poetry are interspersed at pivotal moments.
It is the poetry which we are left with, along with the great sadness that the grim experience of war was far from the mythology Douglas had bought into. But by engaging with the poems, we are remembering Keith Douglas through his work - and as Sheers notes, that was what he'd wanted. "Remember me when I am dead; and simplify me when I'm dead".
Unicorns, Almost at Bristol Old Vic until 7 September