Holding Hands At Paschendale

A timely study on the pity of war from Martin Lynch, writes Brendan Deeds

Smoke slithers in pale ghostly wisps over the audience in The Lyric, reminiscent of the chlorine gas which killed so many young soldiers or perhaps the smoke from a bomb-blasted trench. Before Holding Hands At Paschendale has even begun, we are already immersed in its dark world.

Freddy White as Mo CouttsMartin Lynch’s powerful new play is a moving glimpse of the last four days of Mo Coutts (Freddie White), a First World War deserter awaiting execution. Guarded by Willie Harvey (Ciarán McMenamin) the pair are handcuffed together, but the chains that bind them are more than just physical.

The two soldiers wait in a barn, isolated from their comrades. Mo is a wide-eyed cockney with dreams of becoming a Vaudeville star. White captures Mo's vulnerability, portraying him as an innocent, sensitive boy, all too human for the world he has found himself in.

Arguing with his captor, Mo attempts to lose himself in Vaudevillian comic shtick. This is less a preparation for comedy than a greater inability to deal with his reality.

Willie at first regards Mo as nothing more than a common coward, but comes to realise Mo is a damaged, pitiable character.

McMenamin is a commanding actor, deftly switching from belligerent bully, disgusted by Mo’s weakness, before revealing Willie to be an equally damaged soul. When Mo finally accepts his fate and Willie chides himself for not helping Mo escape, begging his friend for forgiveness, McMenamin produces a heartrending performance.

Holding Hands At PaschendaleComic moments pepper the drama but whilst these are appreciated in such a harrowing play, the slapstick of Mo and Willie’s drunken dance sequence jars with the overall tone. Some audience members may see such scenes as inappropriate in a play which is essentially a requiem.

The performance takes place just a few months after the Government announced their plans to pardon the deserters from the war, and Lynch’s script seethes with venom for an army which would murder its own.

This idea is placed firmly within a class context, where everyday soldiers like Mo and Willie are pawns to be exploited by the bourgeois officer class.

He suggests that refusing to fight is not simply a sign of post-traumatic stress but rather the only sane act in an irrational and inhumane situation.

Ciaran McMenaminThe finer details of Mike Lees’ set deserve special mention, with the barn wall missing every other vertical plank. Providing a glimpse of the war-torn wasteland beyond, it creates the impression that both men are being held in one large jail cell.

This is a wonderful touch, suggesting that both men are trapped, in a mindset of delusion and recrimination, in a situation beyond their control, or in an era and a system which uses both men for its own warped ends.

'My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.'  So wrote Wilfred Owen, describing an art form which was confronting the subject of mass warfare. Holding Hands At Paschendale is a gritty and moving expression of the pity of the fallen and forsaken.

Holding Hands at Paschendale is on tour now.