It’s no wonder Tory education secretary Michael Gove railed against the play Oh What a Lovely War, calling it a “left wing attempt to peddle unpatriotic myths”.
The play is staged as an end-of-pier show with the cast dressed as 12 pierrot clowns. They sing and dance with gusto but gradually change costumes to play soldiers, generals, pacifists, politicians and profiteers as the guns and bombs start to thunder round them.
Ticket sales to a new production at Stratford’s Theatre Royal in east London soared after Gove’s plug.
It is 50 years since Joan Littlewood’s original production was shown there. She wanted to show the First World War through the eyes of ordinary men rather than officers.
And with a mixture of jaunty songs and horrifying statistics displayed on a screen, she delivered a brilliant account of a war in which “lions were led by donkeys”.
Gove gets a photo check as a donkey, to the loud applause of the packed audience.
There were big bucks to be made from building the war machine. In one bitingly telling scene a grouse hunting party of international tycoons worries that war might come to an end and puncture profits.
The screen flashes up that in the US alone 21,000 new millionaires emerged from the war.
In another scene Field Marshal Haig proudly declares that “Every step I take is guided by the divine will”—much like George Bush and Tony Blair almost 100 years later.
The Haig family wanted to take out an injunction against Littlewood for “denigrating our ancestors”. But their solicitors found that everything Haig said on stage was documented word for word.
There is a truly poignant Christmas Day scene when German and British soldiers sing carols to each other, before swapping presents of cigarettes and tinned meat.
But the biggest tear jerker is the end, when the trench-weary soldiers mournfully sing, “And when they ask us how dangerous it was, oh we’ll never tell them”.
Ten million went to their deaths, and often it seems that those who did return were numbed and silenced by the horror.
This wonderful show makes sure we hear what would be their version of events rather than Gove’s. As the Master of Ceremonies shouts to the audience, “Tell your friends, the war game is continuous”.
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