My Grandfather’s Great War

South Street Arts Centre, touring 4 February – 1 May 2009

Reviewed for the Oxford Times

What can a play say about the horrors of World War One trench warfare that we haven’t already heard a thousand times? Precious little – but Cameron Stewart’s lecture-cum-documentary-play My Grandfather’s Great War resonates on personal and contemporary levels that prove more than capable of refreshing the material.

Stewart’s grandfather, Captain Alexander “Tim” Stewart, left behind a cache of detailed letters and journals from the Somme, Passchendaele and several other important front-line battles. The material has been published in print and online, read by Stewart on BBC Radio 4, and adapted into this one-man show, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe and now tours the UK.

Stewart plays both himself and his grandfather, switching frequently from enthusiastic biographer to square-shouldered, solemn, commanding soldier. Colder lighting, a few well-chosen sound effects and Captain Stewart’s verbatim testimony all combine to conjure up the muddy, hopeless wasteland of the front lines.

Early on, Captain Stewart is a solid, reassuring presence, but as the play progresses he becomes increasingly prone to violent outbursts. After we’ve become accustomed to his stillness, seeing him suddenly lunge wild-eyed at the front row wielding an imaginary pickaxe is genuinely disturbing, and amply demonstrates the terrifying power of warfare to transform ordinary people into madmen.

Unfortunately, as these frenetic episodes grow more frequent, their potency becomes greatly diluted.

To his credit, even after many performances, the material still leaves Stewart breathless and choked with emotion. Throughout the show he exploits this personal connection to compare the very different mindsets of young men then and now.

From the diaries, Stewart teases a portrait of a generation that still felt able to trust the government; many of whom made a conscious decision to fight even before conscription; and for whom patriotism was not synonymous with thickheadedness.

Just because those convictions seem unthinkable to us now, says Stewart, doesn’t mean his grandfather’s generation were, as we often paint them, the innocent but ignorant victims of government misdirection. And we thought we knew everything worth knowing about the Great War.

Written by David Benson

Crew includes David Benson (director), Phil Spencer Hunter (lighting) and Tom Lishman (sound)

Cast includes Cameron Stewart (Himself/Captain Alexander Stewart)

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