Roger Pringle’s programme, which was devoted to the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, provided a richly satisfying evening, containing much that was heart-breaking, shocking and lyrically emotional.
Coming from the Sassoon family of merchant bankers, Siegfried was not short of money but it was almost as though he needed to find some sort of employment when he enlisted, fighting alongside his men on the Somme in July 1916.
“I may get killed”, he wrote “ but I no longer know what I’m being killed for”. The Establishment spoke conveniently of the glories of war and the nobility of dying in battle. Their slogan was “pro patria gloria mundi”.
Both Siegfriend and his friend Wilfred Owen, saw the hollow lies beneath all this phoney jingoism. One haunting image given to us at this reading was that of a maimed soldier leaning on a gate in the countryside with only half a leg and wondering why.
At other moments Siegfried’s bitterly truthful diaries, which reveal the sickening transition from indifference to hatred in one’s mental attitude to the Germans, also reveal a hideous world of murderous mud, trench mouth, wretched discomfort, in the lice-ridden trench sleeping areas, blood, maimed bodies which became an everyday occurrence and a kind of guilty homesickness.
His Christ And The Soldier describes an ordinary soldier contemplating Christ on the cross: “And if I shoot a man his mother grieves,/Does that come into what your teaching tells?/ Lord Jesus ain’t you got no more to say?”.
Benedict Hastings and Edward Bennett, both young RSC performers, read with that kind of calm beauty which served both Sassoon and their audience perfectly. Roxie Rogers provided the music hall razzamatazz of the songs of WW1, which occasionally collided heavily with Sassoon’s gravity and wisdom, but which , nevetheless, had its well intentioned moments of levity.