Theatre in Wales

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Owen Sheers' Play: “Beautifully Written, Skilfully Performed”

Wales at Edinburgh Fringe

Unicorns, Almost- The Story of Books , Army @ the Fringe in Association with Summerhall , August 24, 2019
Wales at Edinburgh Fringe by Unicorns, Almost- The Story of Books Numbers are elusive in the arts of Wales. But one number is incontrovertible. There are too few dramatists of Wales of national and international standing. The impact of Scotland, a nation with a population one-third greater, is considerably larger. .

The reasons are several. One is that the framers of cultural policy do not do benchmarking as part of a quality framework. The second follows and is attitudinal. Nobody in authority gives any impression of being bothered. In fact the message I receive at a distance from the epicentre is that drama is disliked. It is disliked because it is feared.

Thankfully we have theatres under feisty management and we have writers of ambition. Owen Sheers' writing for theatre has been seen by a lot of people, quite possibly by more than any other writer. The performances of “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” ran into three figures and “Pink Mist” toured twice.

Many from the production team from “Pink Mist” have reassembled for Sheers' Edinburgh production. “Unicorns, Only” had a first airing at the Hay Festival last year and was recorded on this site 5th June 2018.

From the Edinburgh Guide

“An atmospheric glimpse into the war years of poet Keith Douglas, this is a beautifully written and skilfully performed show. With a set and seating that firmly places the audience into the life of Douglas’s war, the scene is established quickly.

“The occasional voice-overs of Douglas’ poetry and writing allow the audience time to focus purely on his words giving poignancy to the awareness of a life lost. This is a touching production that gets to the heart of Douglas and leaves the audience with a warm reminder of the power of words.”

From Broadway Baby

“Entering the performance is rather like accessing a grotto. A narrow corridor is lined with literature rela ting to the production and a collection of memorabilia and illustrations from the period. It opens into a cave-like room, completely bedecked with military paraphernalia that has elements of the battlefield combined with an operations room and a homely writing desk. The installation has been open for moving audio presentations and is permanently accessible at times outside of the performance. For the live production, it takes on an even more intense atmosphere.

“An evocative soundscape by Jon Nicholls is enhanced by Ben Pickersgill’s moody lighting design that immerses us in the period and locations that Douglas would have known. The remainder of this total experience is in the hands of Dan Krikler as Keith Douglas, under the sensitive direction of John Retallack. The script and Krikler’s performance reflect the style of Douglas’s writing; a mode of expression that Douglas described as ‘extrospective’. His technique was to write observations on events and what he saw around him rather than give vent to emotions.

"Krikler captures this detachment in his calm descriptions of the man’s life and reflections on the events he experienced. This intensifies the moments when he lets loose and the inner feelings finally surface, so that Douglas’ humanity, rather than his setting, becomes the focus of attention. Krikler’s style of melancholic understatement could at times perhaps be more energised, but it remains captivating throughout.

"Honest, holistic and honed, Unicorns, Almost is faithful to the words of Douglas himself: "Remember me when I am dead, And simplify me when I'm dead".

From the Wee Review

“This is a sand-blasted tragedy in khaki. The title is from Keith Douglas’ war poem Aristocrats, where the ‘Unicorns, almost’ are the officers who ride their tanks as if riding to hounds, and whose ‘famous unconcern’ allows them to see the North African desert as one enormous cricket ground. Douglas is twice chided by his commanding officer for being ‘out for a duck – again!’

“Actor Dan Krikler is alone on stage throughout. With or without the signature tank beret, Krikler looks like the photographs of Douglas that line the entrance, and the stories he tells are (probably) straight out of Douglas’ memoir Alamein to Zem Zem. Sheers and director John Retallack mix it so that whilst there are the model soldiers of childhood at the beginning, the sorry and brief family history comes much later. In between are the desert war, rest and relaxation in Alexandria, tripwire, girlfriends, and the Normandy landings.”

From Edinburgh Festival Magazine

“How to do justice to the life of a poet? Should you tell the biography, or wrestle with the art? Owen Sheers’ life of Keith Douglas, as directed by John Retallack, sets up camp – literally – in the former. You enter the theatre as though to a roomy bivouac in the desert, and Dan Krikler performs him as a hesitant, vulnerable man, even if someone of engaging detached eloquence. The poems create moments of quiet and introspection. But… can this really be the unlikely English Rimbaud who ran away to war?

“He analysed the hard trauma that technology brought to warfare: his masterpiece ‘How To Kill’ sits you down with a sniper to look through the sights and pull the trigger. It has a painful and compelling contemporary resonance. He understood the casual cruelty that mass mobilization inflicts on individuals, and how the British army reproduces the British class system to the point of parody. He used his art as a form of self-immunization from all-pervasive state and military propaganda.”

Reviews cited, with thanks, can be read in full at:

Reviews from Welsh writers can be read at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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