Who is culpable for mass slaughter in war? That was the fascinating (and topical) question posed by the play His Plan of Attack which opened at the Mumford Theatre last night.
Penned by historian Sean Lang, the piece focuses on Sir Douglas Haig, the military commander of British troops in France during World War One. It explores the Battle of the Somme -- the disastrous campaign which resulted in no territorial gains but 20,000 losses in human lives on the first day. Since that spectacular failure, Haig has been largely blamed for sending so many British soldiers to their certain deaths in the trenches of Flanders.
It is a fascinating history at that – Haig is shown as more victim than perpetrator forced against his will by circumstance and power broking, to take the decision to initiate what he called ‘the Big Push’ on that fateful July day in 1916. Whilst the story is that of complex military strategy and arcane political manoeuvring, the human side of the debacle is also shown.
Haig is drawn as a rather avuncular figure with a strong moral compass and sense of duty. He was well played by Richard Sockett who was good at showing us the man behind the fearsome walrus moustache. His was not a figure of fun or derision (think of Stephen Fry in Blackadder Goes Forth) but a man of deep faith and tragic frailty. He is also a man with a plan – to blast the Germans into surrender. That it didn’t work is well known, but less familiar is the character of the man. This of course is the stuff of theatre.
There were several very competent performances to support the impressive Sockett: Izzy Rees was moving as the Haig’s housekeeper with two sons at the front; Oliver Howarth did a good job as her son, the hapless Tommy in the trenches. The action moved from France to the Haig’s country house ruled by Lady Haig – a nice little cameo by Kimberly Tongish. Some scenes were more successful than others but there was a particularly good one between David Lloyd George (the wily Welsh politician played by Owen Mackney) and Callum Brown as Sassoon, Haig’s military private secretary. Here Sassoon rails against the cabinet minister for blaming the military top brass for the catastrophe on the Somme when blame should rest with the politicians who started the war. It was a rare moment of theatrical passion.
The playwright has to get through an awful lot of history and inevitable complexity and there were many times when I thought less would have been more. Also perhaps because this was the first night, the production felt sluggish with unnecessary slumps in tension – a touch of show doctoring might work wonders however.
For those interested in Haig the man, the truth behind his sullied reputation and the motives of those caught up in the brutality of war, the play will illuminate and educate. It certainly has encouraged this reviewer to find out more about Douglas Haig and political machinations around the First World War. As to culpability – the jury is still out.