This hugely absorbing play is about many things, as you will know if you have read the novel it is based on – Pat Barker’s acclaimed Regeneration, back in the spotlight in this First World War centenary year.
It is about the horrors of trench warfare – no less horrific for being viewed far from the heat of battle – and it is about the meeting and mounting friendship of two famous poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
It is also about Dr William Rivers, self-proclaimed “psychologist of the Freudian school”, who worked at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, where the play is set.
It was to Craiglockhart that Sassoon was sent in 1917 after dropping his anti-war bombshell, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.
Widely published and circulated, it could have meant a court martial for the brave and headstrong young officer but Robert Graves – another real-life soldier poet who appears in novel and play – persuaded the authorities his friend was suffering from shellshock and got him sent to Rivers at Craiglockhart instead.
Stephen Boxer’s Rivers is a fascinating study of a man torn between pragmatism and compassion.
Not afraid of adopting a tough stance with his damaged patients, he nevertheless prefers to coax them back to fitness through talking. He has to ask for the bathroom after watching pioneering electric shock treatment applied by a less feeling London colleague (Lewis Yealland, another character from real life).
“It’s a strange kind of healing I do,” muses Rivers whose job is to make men fit enough to return to the “slaughterhouse”.
For all his admirable bluster and insistence that he is faking illness, Sassoon (Tim Delap) has terrible nightmares, just like the other men.
The patients’ sudden living flashbacks punctuate the play with moments of real horror, accentuated by a brilliant set of institutionalised sickly green.
The most interesting character, paradoxically, is the fictional Billy Prior. Mute at first, he regains his voice to reveal himself as a complex character – humorous, sharp, provocative. Jack Monaghan gives a riveting performance, revealing the character’s bravado and vulnerability.
Prior enabled Barker – and here playwright Nicholas Wright – to pose questions that the archives don’t satisfactorily deal with. Through Prior we learn about Rivers’s own inner turmoil and also his left-leaning politics, which may or may not be founded on fact but seem to make sense here.
We also learn a little more about the diffident Owen (Garmon Rhys).
Tragically killed a week before Armistice Day, Owen idolised Sassoon, the already published poet. It is fascinating to witness their imagined exchanges here, with Sassoon helping to tweak the rough draft that would become Anthem for Doomed Youth, one of the most famous poems to emerge from the war.
The poems live on but what Regeneration exposes, in director Simon Godwin’s thought-provoking production, is the waves of grief, suffering and anguish that must have characterised life for very many people even after the guns fell silent.
Try not to miss Regeneration. A co-production between the Touring Consortium Theatre Company and the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton, it is at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday with matinees on Thursday and Saturday. Box office: (01325) 486555 or www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk