Not About Heroes (Online review)

Not About Heroes (Online review)

Before streaming theatre became more generally available, there were schemes which allowed for recorded productions to be shown and discussed in schools as part of English Literature or Drama courses; these continue to be popular with educators. The National has the National Theatre Collection (a collection of thirty plays free to educational institutions) and there are regular Schools’ Broadcasts from the RSC. On the more commercial front Digital Theatre+ extends the range on offer on their main website with recordings of over 1,300 productions. All come with useful classroom resources. Rather smaller in scale though no doubt perfectly formed is Blackeyed Theatre’s Online For Schools currently featuring half a dozen shows.


The latest addition to these premieres as a freestream yesterday/today though was actually filmed back in 2014. The play Not About Heroes will be of great use to students studying poetry from the First World War as it concerns the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The older more experienced literary figure acts as mentor to the younger when they meet at Craiglockhart, dubbed “the shell shock hospital” in a suburb of Edinburgh. It was specifically opened to deal with the increasing issue of traumatised soldiers from the battlefront particularly following the Battle Of The Somme in 1916. Sassoon was sent there in order to save him from being court martialled following a prolonged period of anti-War campaigning. Meanwhile Owen experienced several traumatic incidents on the front line including lying for several days amongst the remains of a fellow soldier. Diagnosed with neurasthenia, he too was sent to Craiglockhart to undergo therapy.

Sassoon was a published author and Owen was not when they first met. However, encouraged by the former the latter thrashed out his own poetic style, developed his writing and finally came to be published. It is probably true to say that today Owen is the better remembered of the two with poems such as Dulce Et Decorum Est and Anthem For Doomed Youth. In a key scene in the play the two men discuss the latter with Sassoon suggestion revisions and corrections which show just how influential he was on the budding poet. Lest this be thought dramatic invention, this is all based on a manuscript in both men’s writing showing these revisions. In any case his greatest influence was probably in instilling Owen with a greater degree of confidence and self-belief and providing him with an entry to the literary circle of the time including writers like Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells and Robert Graves as well as established publishers.


James Howard plays Sassoon as a rather urbane intellectual who refers to Craiglockhart as “Dottyville”. When he dons a dressing gown he becomes rather reminiscent of Noel Coward; however, he has little of the lightness of that writer being an impassioned anti war campaigner even while he is leading his men into battle. Howard’s measured performance has moments of real heartache as he recalls Owen’s rapid rise to acclaim followed by his cruel death just one week before the Armistice. Owen was of rather humbler stock and Ben Ashton indicates this with a careful interpretation which shows his hero worship of the older man. Ashton plays Owen with a stammer and an obvious mother fixation – both historically accurate – and gives him a quiet sense of dignity especially as he heads back to the Front and his eventual death.


Being just a two hander there is an inevitable focus on monologue and duologue, but writer Stephen MacDonald ensures that in the nearly two hour running time there are enough changes of tone and pace to stop this becoming tedious. The play is staged very simply such that locations become fluid – as the piece is framed as a memory play this works sufficiently well. Apparently the designer Victoria Spearing took Dadaist art as an inspiration although I have to say I only know that from glancing through the accompanying programme after the event – perhaps more needed to be done to make this reference to the then contemporary art form explicit. If educators are using this production as a resource I would say that some familiarity with the poetry and context before viewing would be helpful in order to get the most out of the text. However, it is a more than useful addition to any teacher’s resource bank and interesting enough as a play in its own write to find interest among viewers more generally. Having seen this release I would be interested to see how they have approached some of the other classic texts in their for schools portfolio.

Production photos by Alex Harvey-Brown

Not About Heroes is available as a freestream today and then available to schools for a further week – click here. It is also available on Scenesaver

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