It is the 3rd of September 1916, during The Battle of Guillemont, WW1, and two men lie in wait in the trenches. They wait to be rescued or to succumb to either the Huns or the trench itself. Simon is an Englishman raised in India, and Buck, an Irishman serving in the Royal Irish Regiment.
Buck- a former miner- is a loquacious and trench-wise lad, who has seen his fair share of action as a ‘trench-rat’ for the British Empire. Although upbeat, constant warfare has left him weary, detached and resigned to the horrors of war. Simon, in contrast, is a classic Brit with a stiff upper lip, son of a tailor for the Indian royalty, who left everything behind to search for a lost Indian friend on the frontline. He is the rookie of the two and way out over his head, struck by naivety, nerves and recklessness. Separated from their regiments and pinned down by enemy snipers, together they have to overcome their differences in order to survive the night.
Fear in a Handful of Dust was produced by Vertical Line Theatre in association with Greenwich Theatre and COG ARTSpace as part of the centenary year of the First World War. It is set in a long, thin room above the De Beauvoir Arms Pub in Islington. Strangely, the stage wouldn’t look out of place used as a catwalk for a fashion show, rather than a play about the horrors of WW1; but it is when the lights dim and Simon takes to the stage, a long carpet filled with dirt, sandbags and planks of wood, that the grit and claustrophobia sets in. Make no mistake, the room made an exceptional trench.
The characters are idiosyncratic enough and their performances filled with such conviction that they break free of the limitations of the room. That the audience sits inches from the actors makes for an immersive and suffocating experience. There are many moments of tension and gritty realism, that simultaneously are humourous – note when Buck has to reluctantly urinate in Simon’s hand so he can disinfect Buck’s bullet wound, or Simon stripping naked to escape lice bites- which save the play from becoming incessantly bleak. In fact, it is the burgeoning friendship between the two and how they have to overcome the odds to ensure each other’s survival, that proves touching.
The pairs’ social, personal and national differences often clash- for Buck it’s the hypocrisy of fighting for a war and empire that reviles his countrymen and sees them as subordinates. For Simon it’s his rootlessness, for England is only home by birth and India is not his true home either. These issues make the narrow trenches seem even more suffocating and dangerous, even while the real enemy lies a short distance over No Man’s Land, an invisible but pervasive threat.
Fear in a Handful of Dust is more than just a play about WW1, it is about how war exposes the humanity of individuals, something which can easily be broken down in the face of adversity. It is about surviving against the odds and putting aside national, social and class divisions, which when millions of young men met early and brutal deaths the same way, seems insignificant. 4/5
Review written by Evan Parker.
Fear in a Handful of Dust is currently showing at the COG ARTSpace until Friday 9th January 2015. For more information on the production, visit here…