Grace Patrick reviews the Welsh shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, beginning with the latest play from the pen of Owen Sheers, Unicorns, Almost.
A military base is an interesting setting for Unicorns, Almost; the brutality of military life which underpins the play clashes uncomfortably with the poster outside, in our world, advertising the opportunity to sign up to the armed forces, aping the famous Kitchener one. This dichotomy between day-to-day peace and the violence it can so suddenly break into is ever present in the play itself. Unicorns, Almost draws on the life and work of World War II poet Keith Douglas, a man who, it is suggested, made a Faustian pact with the horrors of war for the sake of his art. And a hallmark of Douglas’ work is this willingness to not look away: amid the inconceivable horrors of headt-to-head warfare, he’ll keep on saying what he sees. For all the delicacy and cadence of his poetry, it’s harshness is impossible to overlook. Owen Sheers’ script flits between the poetic and the prosaic, mixing Douglas’ poetry with more standard language. For all its beauty, some of the most graphic accounts of the things he saw are wrapped in a protective layer of verse and rhyme.
Dan Krikler, playing the only role of Douglas himself, is spectacular. This is a heavy part, stretching across a swathe of Douglas’ life and encompassing great trauma. John Retallack’s direction mixed with Krikler’s acting choices allow each moment to feel genuinely explored, even in the tight time frame of Edinburgh’s requisite 60-minutes. On stage, Krikler shifts between meditative stillness and an almost frenetic energy, alternately tumbling at a pace through this relentless life and simply taking a moment to be at peace.
In a play so seemingly absolutely focused on language and its intricacies, it’s interesting to note the unexpected complexity in its physical design. While the stage itself is reasonably straightforward, it’s really brought to life by the lighting, which facilitates shifts in time and place smoothly enough that they never feel forced. The words certainly can speak for themselves; Sheers’ has made a career in recent years of using the words of others to sculpt his drama, from his award-winning Pink Mist to recent films for the BBC commemorating both the Aberfan disaster and the birth of the NHS.
Perhaps most jarring is the fact that, externally at least, Krikler’s Douglas never seems genuinely, truly angry. The world as he knows it is up in flames and nothing, especially not life, is certain. The detachment is ever present in Douglas’ poetry, always a step back, always seeing but never quite engaging, forms a thread which runs through the entire play.
This is an uncomfortable hour, digging into an international trauma that’s so easily romanticised beyond recognition. Remembering may hurt, but perhaps forgetting would be even worse.
Unicorns, Almost is at the Rec Room in association with Summerhall until August 25th