A few days ago, leaders from across the world stood shoulder to shoulder to commemorate the end of World War I, and the millions of lives sacrificed during the conflict. With one obvious exception (who shall remain nameless because frankly, who can be bothered with him?), they were respectful and sombre – so it’s been pretty depressing this week to see several of them once again at each other’s throats. It’s almost enough to make you wonder what the war (any war) was even for…?
In Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead, written in 1935, six fallen American soldiers stand up in their graves and courteously ask not to be buried. Their violent and bloody deaths, they argue, were not of their choosing; they gave their lives for someone else’s cause, and it doesn’t seem fair that their reward should be to be buried and quietly forgotten, when each still has so much to live for.
The soldiers’ peaceful protest makes a powerful statement, but what gives Bury the Dead such an impact is the response to their actions. The military leaders, fearful of the effect it will have on morale, desperately try to keep the whole situation quiet – and when that fails, they distort the soldiers’ message into propaganda to further their cause. After the soldiers fail to obey direct orders to lie down and be buried, their superiors use fear and manipulation to get their “women” to talk them round. This may be a story about the walking dead, but there’s little doubt at any point who the real monsters are.
The beginning and end of the play are fast-paced, with set designer Verity Johnson’s bleakly atmospheric grave site often full to bursting as the establishment frantically try to find a solution to their growing problem. Director Rafaella Marcus smoothly choreographs the multiple entrances and exits, and makes efficient use of her cast; most of the eleven actors take on a number of roles. Even the six dead men are at first played by just three (Keeran Blessie, Tom Larkin and Stuart Nunn), because the others (Luke Dale, Liam Harkins and Scott Westwood) double as the soldiers who would have buried them. I don’t know if that’s how Shaw wrote the play, or if it’s a decision that was taken for this production – but either way, when the two groups come together it’s an incredibly powerful moment.
The majority of the second half of the play slows things down (arguably a bit too much), taking the form of six one-on-one encounters between the soldiers and their “women”, and giving each of the actors an opportunity to shine individually as they explain their own motivations. This is also a showcase for the versatility of Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor, who alternate between them as the six women – though it’s great to also see the only two female cast members in the role of doctors and journalists, and not just as weeping wives and mothers.
The Remembrance Day ceremonies may be over for another year, but in Bury the Dead we’re reminded that lives lost in combat are lost forever, not just for a day. The play draws a careful distinction between heroism and honour; having the courage to risk dying alone, in pain and far from home is heroic, but there’s nothing honourable about it, particularly when the only people who gain from it are those unwilling to risk it themselves. The play asks us to remember – but to avoid repeating the horrors of the past, it suggests what we really need to do is to listen.
Bury the Dead is at Finborough Theatre until 24th November.