The Bunker: Morganna and Agamemnon

First published 12 September 2013, Author: Matthew Preston

The new venue for the Southwark Playhouse on Newington Causeway may not have the atmospheric arches of its old location by London Bridge station, however it does boast two reasonable sized and flexible spaces. For this double header, the eponymous little space was transformed into a muddy officer’s bunker. Benches were set against walls lined with strips of hessian and various world war one paraphernalia. Mud on the floor and copius amounts of dry ice completed the transformation and effectively established our location within the trenches of the Great War.

The play itself was in two parts; the first told the story of how a group of public school boys who as children identified themselves with Arthur’s knights were affected by the appearance of a woman equated with Morganna Le Fey. The second addressed the fears of a wounded officer about how his wife would receive him when he returned home, drawing on the story of Agamemnon’s return from the fall of Troy. Of course, these plot devices were really framing an examination of the psychological impact of the war on these young soldiers.

A playwright who wishes to explore the psychology of their characters relies even more heavily on the skill of the actors; it’s no good writing Hamlet if the lead actor is unable to bring the audience with him as he flits between doubt and certainty. Fortunately for playwright Jamie Wilkes his cast do not let him down.

In the first half, boisterous public school boys postured and sparred (verbally and physically) with each other as they sought to make sense of the destruction of a way of life they had considered immutable. The actress playing Morganna symbolised all women; remembered, idealised and exploited in turns. Was she there to help or hinder Arthur? In the end it is Arthur’s own knights that tear themselves apart. Quick fire wordplay brought a touch of humour to the play emphasising the pathos of the heartbreak and death the act closes on.

Our discussion during the interval centred around the quality of the acting and the question of whether they would handle the shift in roles. Changes in accents helped the audience disassociate the actors from their previous characters – but it was down to the strength of the cast in fully realising their new roles that at no time did we confuse the two.

This story was darker; a wounded officer is helped into the bunker by a private, who tries to cheer him up with talk of his repatriation to England. However the officer fears the reaction of his wife; through flashbacks and hallucinations we see the wife’s despair at his signing up, her miscarriage and drawing closer to the cousin who was left to look after her. Pain and guilt drive the officer to further confessions; he has only written to his wife once in two years, to confess an infidelity with a prostitute in Belgium. We see his wife grow angry and manipulate his cousin into assisting with the returning officer’s murder.

The theme of the play was how participation in the war damaged the psychology of the young soldiers. Retreating either into fantasy or denial and despair, the actors brilliantly portrayed the strain and stress of men at their breaking point. Neither half was perfect; the first section was a superbly realised and acted study resting on the clichéd treatment of public school soldiers, a fantasy-realist version of Journey’s End. The second had a more interesting conceit (maybe due to my relative unfamiliarity with the source material) but the relationship between the wife and husband somehow failed to convince leaving the final betrayal/revenge strangely lacking in impact. The location of large sections of the action back home in England also reduced the impact of the fantastic set dressing.

The above should not detract from the quality of the piece; the First World War was made relevant and the psychological questions raised were interesting. The playwright skillfully worked his source material into the new setting and showed how our myths and legends still have modern relevance. The failure, if any, was in the female characterisation, which lacked the depth and complexity of the soldiers. However if the imagination of this show is representative of how The Southwark Playhouse intend to use their Little space going forward, then we can look forward to many interesting future productions.