Howard Brenton losing and saving face in the Great War

Howard Brenton losing and saving face in the Great War

Robert Tanitch reviews Doctor Scroggy’s War at Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Shakespeare’s Globe doesn’t only perform Shakespeare. They also stage new plays. Howard Brenton’s last play for the Globe was about Anne Boleyn. His latest is about Doctor Harold Gillies, a famous plastic surgery pioneer during World War 1.

Robert Tanitch logoGillies (James Garnon) didn’t just want to heal the bodies of his patients; he wanted to heal their minds and souls as well.

He was a joker and encouraged midnight revels in the hospital wards. He would put on a beard and a kilt and pretend to be Doctor Scroggy and provide champagne.

There would be fun and games and charades. “We don’t do glum here,” he said.

Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a clever working class boy, an Oxford undergraduate, a fictional character, joins up and works as a junior intelligence officer in GHQ until he volunteers for the front line. He is severely wounded in the face on the first day of the Battle of Loos in 1915.

Doctor Scroggy2British casualties totalled 59,247. At first Jack does not want to be alive. (20,000 soldiers died in the battle.)  Later, when he has acquired a new face, he wants to go back to the front, feeling it is his duty to do so.  For the many who found the War pointless, there were those who found it glorious.

One of the most effective scenes is the dispute between Field Marshall French (Paul Rider) and Field Marshall Haigh (Sam Cox) about Loos. There is also an amusing joke at the expense of the British and the French High Command; since neither side is bi-lingual, they have great difficulty in communicating.

Two scenes are deeply moving. The first is when Jack is reunited with his parents and the second is when Queen Mary visits the hospital and whispers kind words (which the audience does not hear) to the inmates. The heavily bandaged lads get into drag and put on a show for her and sing “I’m only a broken baby doll.”

The play is well cast. James Garnon and Will Featherstone, two highly engaging actors, are excellent. John Dove’s production certainly deserves a longer life after the 12 performances have finished at Shakespeare’s Globe.

To learn more about Robert Tanitch and his reviews, click here to go to his website

Images by Mark Douet