(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/3.)
Now, if ever, is the right time to adapt Pat Barker's acclaimed 1991 first world war novel for the stage. By including episodes from the two books that followed it, Nicholas Wright's deeply moving play stays true to Barker's vision while highlighting its own chosen themes of companionship, guilt and inequality.
The setting is the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart where in 1917 the neurologist WHR Rivers treated men deemed by the military to be suffering from shell shock. His prime patient is Siegfried Sassoon, who has been wangled into the hospital by Robert Graves to avoid his being court-martialled for a letter he has written to the Times attacking the war aims. While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon discovers in Rivers a father-figure while also attracting the veneration of an aspiring poet, Wilfred Owen, to whom he gives practical help on the writing of the sonnet that becomes Anthem for Doomed Youth.
Wright hints at the sexual bond that unites Rivers, Sassoon and Owen. But the main theme of the play is the way war breeds "an infection of guilt that spreads like a disease".