Robert Tanitch reviews Flowers of the Forest at Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
As the song says, the flowers of the forest are all wede away. 10,000 died during the Battle of Flodden. Where have all the flowers gone? Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards, everyone. Oh, when will they ever learn? Ten million died during the Great War.
Anthony Biggs has discovered a play by John Van Druten that few people will have heard of, let alone seen. The Flowers of the Forest premiered in 1934 and proved too depressing for audiences who did not want to be reminded of the things they may have thought and said during the war.
Biggs’s production is well acted. The play 80 years ago, I suspect, was underestimated by the critics and the public, precisely because it was pacifist.
Two sisters lose their fiancés during the war. The first and third acts are set in 1934, when their lives have been blighted. The second act is set during 1914 and 1916. Mercia (Debra Penny) rejects Thomas (Daniel Fine) because he will not hate Germans. Richard (Gabriel Vick), a poet, who goes from the exaltation of a Richard Brooke to the deep bitterness of a Wilfred Owen, rejects Naomi (Sophie Ward) because of the horrors he has seen in Flanders.
Men die in wars. Men die of disease in peace time. Life is cruel. The last scene involves a bit of telepathy when the lost poem, Richard wrote for Naomi when he was dying, is spoken through the voice of a young man (Max Wilson) in 1934 who is dying of consumption.
The play’s pacifist message is loud and clear. Wars are ugly and should be stopped. Like Wilfred Owen, Van Druten is angry about the lies (Dulce et Decorum EST pro patria mori) and lambasts the Church for supporting the war and its unchristian sentiments. Patriotism and heroism are not enough. Let the men live. Let them live. The glory is in living, not dying.