November 4, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Days of Significance (RSC) @ The Belgrade Theatre

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Roy Williams’ play debuted as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival back in early 2007, and it’s a pleasure to have the chance to revisit a production I enjoyed so much the first time round. The play has gone from strength to strength since its initial short run, and it is testament to the perceived importance of the subject matter (the effect of the Iraq conflict on ordinary Brits) that Williams has been given the opportunity to extensively rewrite the play, ensuring that it remains up-to-the-minute and in tune with the concerns in the news.

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The plot remained straightforward, and is worth recapping in some detail. On a Friday night, two lairy groups of lads and lasses caused havoc on a night out on the tiles. This was the part of the play that was loosely inspired by Much Ado about Nothing: Ben and Jamie (Benedick and Claudio) were soldiers enjoying a final night of fun before shipping out to Iraq. Dan (Don John), their friend, was against the war and bitter at them for going, while Steve and Tony (loosely Borachio and Conrade) just wanted to get plastered. Among the girls, Trish (Beatrice) was the sex-mad ringleader who once had a fling with Ben, while Hannah (Hero) was starting university and under a great deal of pressure to be the "good" girl. Jamie and Hannah fell in love over the course of the night, and Trish and Ben hooked up again. However, a jealous Dan used the careless gossip of Clare (Margaret) and Steve against "Hannah the slapper", resulting in Jamie insulting her in front of the group. Although everyone was eventually reconciled, Jamie and Ben were still due to ship out in a couple of days.

The play’s second act moved to Iraq, framed by two video messages from Ben to Trish; the first newly-arrived and excited, the second jaded and haunted by ominous hints at a revenge mission against the killers of a friend. In between a scene saw Ben, Jamie (an addition to this scene since the play’s original production) and two other soldiers, wounded and scared, hiding after an ambush to wait for back-up. As they sheltered, it transpired that Ben had shot a child in cold blood on suspicion of helping the enemy. The scene confronted in a realistic way the atrocities that happen in the heat of combat, and the various strategies used to justify them afterwards: Ben rewrote history to justify his actions, Jamie froze and cowered, their Sergeant threatened to tell all but died of his wounds instead.

Part Three was entirely redesigned from the original production. Originally, this was an abstract scene which saw Hannah stood in a bare square, holding simultaneous conversations with Jamie, Dan, Trish and her father-in-law Lenny. Now, the scene was far more conventional, set at Clare and Steve’s wedding. Ben had died in Iraq, apparently heroically, while Jamie was home facing trial for prisoner abuse, keeping secret the fact that Ben had been the ringleader. The scene remained focussed on Hannah, as she tried to reconcile her abhorrence of Jamie’s actions with her love for him and wish to support him. Reverting to the "Hannah the Slapper" tag in an attempt to escape the pressures put on her, she was sleeping with Dan – whose views on the war she now shared – while at the same time hating him for his disdain for Jamie and Ben. Meanwhile, a grieving Trish was bitter at what she perceived as Hannah’s abandoning of her for her university friends. While Hannah fielded the attacks on all fronts, Jamie pitched up at the wedding, only to end up in a fist fight with Dan. The play ended with Hannah’s resolve to accompany Jamie to his court hearing, prioritising love above all else.

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While Williams protests in the programme that the connections with Much Ado are very loose, the play actually provided a committed and fascinating reading of the play in its first act. The bickering of Beatrice and Benedick translated perfectly to the politics of city nightlife, with Ben and Trish balancing their lust for each other with the need to not lose face in front of their gangs. Insults, as Trish said, were just part of the foreplay. The setting also allowed for an interesting inversion of the slandering plot: here, in a flurry of text messages, overheard toilet conversations and petty jealousy, it became spontaneous rather than coldly-calculated, and Dan’s decision to go ahead with the plot was motivated as much by love for his mates, leading to anger at their choice to go to war, as by jealousy and spite.

Most potently, though, this was a deeply pessimistic view of Much Ado, in which love was fleeting, flawed and conditional, and where "happy endings" were only pauses in a longer action which led ultimately to death and disgrace. It showed a Hero-figure breaking under the stress of accusations, parental expectations and romantic disillusionment and embracing the identity constructed for her by her detractors. It showed a Benedick whose fiery temperament and casual approach to life resulted in him committing unspeakable atrocities, and a Claudio whose weakness of character and susceptibility to suggestion found him following his friend in those actions. Perhaps most distressingly, it gave us a Beatrice who only let her guard down for Benedick and was hurt badly by it, and who consoled herself by sloping of with other girls’ partners at the wedding feast. Pervading all was an emotional desperation and isolation that displayed, with a disheartening impression of truth, the ability of the war to destroy the lives of the people it touched.

Running through this was an underlying concern about education. All characters in the play were working-class, with Hannah’s posh university friends pointedly absent from the stage. The arrogant, obnoxious and violently-disposed Dan was also the only character who understood the politics and motivations behind the war, who went on peace demonstrations and openly criticised his friends for not thinking about their actions. It’s the liberal viewpoint that we are perhaps normally most encouraged to sympathise with; and yet here his words – and the reported words of Hannah’s friends – felt removed and ignorant, theoretical without an understanding of the realities of war. This was contrasted with Ben and Jamie’s confused rhetoric about going "for their country" and proving themselves to be men, without a real understanding of what they were fighting for. In this kind of argument, no-one could be right; Williams’ point seemed rather to be that those who talk most about the war are those who it least affects, while those who are deliberately targetted to be directly involved in fighting are the ones disadvantaged by education or an understanding of the concerns. People in this world either think, or do; not both.

With an excellent young cast and a good-humoured (and gruesomely fluid!) recreation of a night on the town, Days of Significance proved it could entertain, and the play provided a surprising amount of comedy throughout, from Clare’s hideous karaoke at her wedding to Sean the soldier’s claims that a photo of Victoria Beckham was actually his girlfriend. The comedy, though, came from seeing ourselves in situations that felt all too familiar, making the intrusions of death and horror all the more powerful. Humour was, for the people of this play, far more a defence mechanism than an expression of any real joy.

The rewritten third act largely improved the play, turning what had been a rather preachy, abstract scene into something more dramatically compelling. A few crucial changes also served to make things more interesting: in the original version, Hannah’s stepfather Lenny had admitted to being in love with her; here, she came onto him as he tried to tell her she was worth something, deliberately trying to degrade hersel in an attempt to hide from being the good, responsible girl he wanted her to be. Jamie’s attempts to reintegrate himself into ‘normal’ society by attending the wedding also broke up the attention to Hannah in the final act, making the alienation of the returned soldier apparent and visually showing the conflict that Hannah faced in choosing between the different worlds that fought for her attention.

The most sobering realisation is that Days of Significance is still as relevant today as the troops are pulled out of Afghanistan as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war. As an appropriation of Shakespeare, it took the essential themes of Much Ado, intelligently transposed them and followed them through to seemingly inevitable and shocking conclusions. As an RSC production, it showed the company engaging conscientiously with a section of society who perhaps wouldn’t normally be in attendance at the Courtyard. As a performance in its own right, it was skilfully played and engaging. As a piece of work, though, its importance transcended theatre, as all good political theatre should. By engaging with war from a defiantly street-level perspective, evaluating the human cost in terms other than body counts, it reminded us that this is an issue which affects Britain’s streets as well as Basra’s, and gave stark warnings for those of us who intellectually engage with the war that, without this perspective, our theorising is simply irrelevant.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review