100 years ago, men found themselves fighting in the early battles of WW1 and women were staffing the field hospitals, receiving the first casualties of mechanised warfare. Men either died, or were left permanently disfigured. Medical techniques of the time were woefully inadequate for repairing the damage caused by shelling and machine gun fire, particularly to the face. A century later, we live in a world where plastic and reconstructive surgery is widely available, innovative, versatile and generally safe – for that, we can thank pioneering medic, Harold Gillies.
It’s 1915: the play follows Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a working class lad bright enough to go to Oxford who signs up along with his university friend, Lord Ralph Dulwich (Joe Jameson) as a young officer. Both bright eyed and bushy tailed, with illusions of going off to “smash the Hun”. A chance meeting at a party at the Ritz sees Jack accidentally take Ralph’s promotion (and has a night of passion with Ralph’s friend, Lady Penelope Wedgwood – a rather feline Catherine Bailey) and sets both men on 2 different courses. We see many sides of Jack throughout the play: his initial gusto, his outspoken nature when he sees a flaw in the plan of the smug Field Marshall John French (Paul Rider) when planning the ill-fated Battle of Loos, his fear that to press the issue may cost him his position, and his discomfort amongst the upper classes.
We also meet the affable and slightly eccentric Major Harold Gillies (James Garnon – a regular face at Shakespeare’s Globe), a surgeon trying his best to find a way to repair the terrible facial wounds of injured soldiers brought back from the front. He is wonderfully flippant – he knows that the men he treats are so gravely injured that if he doesn’t operate, they’ll die anyway, so he might as well try to repair the damage and give them a chance at life – although his early attempts are unsuccessful as he tries to do too much at once. He slowly refines his technique, but survival brings other repercussions in the form of mental trauma. So at night, the mysterious kilted and bearded ‘Doctor Scroggy’, (Gillies’ alter ego) tiptoes through the wards, dispensing jokes, mischief and Champagne to the convalescing soldiers.
The play snaps in and out of little asides to the audience. There are occasional moments where it’s not exactly clear whether they’re speaking to us or to another character, and it often darts between the two – but it is seamless. It’s a great way to convey the inner thoughts. There’s something haunting when Jack kneels down to say “you all know what’s going to happen to me, don’t you?”, the sense of dread that he too will have his face shattered beyond recognition. The nurses (Holly Morgan, Catherine Bailey and Daisy Hughes – all slightly squeamish to begin with) graphically describe the process of hot, spinning shrapnel taking off a man’s jaw, ear, nose…. and Jack is whisked away to Gillies’ hospital.
There is a perfect illustration of ‘before and after’ of the healing process, which made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. As the wounded Jack is wheeled in, mumbling that he wants them to end his life, the heartbreaking devastation is broken by 3 bandaged patients in fancy dress boisterously chasing each other through the ward. There is hope. There is life after trauma. But it is a slow process. One of my favourite lines was Gillies asking Jack “what sort of nose do you want?… I’m going to give you a new one, so you might as well be happy with it.” The play is smattered throughout with black humour and little gems like this.
But Gillies knew that it was not enough to repair the face – he had to heal the psychological damage as well. James Garnon is delightfully impish and warm as Doctor Scroggy, with a real tenderness when attending to the soldiers experiencing disturbing flashbacks and as he counsels them through the catharsis of admitting that they miss the fear, the bodies, the dirt and the horror. That they would do anything to go back, the feeling that the opportunity to do their duty has been snatched away from them. The play is very poignant, partly because these issues are still very present today; as young men and women return from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental scars, medicine moves forward. The advances in identifying and treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as micro-surgery. But overall, it is the fortitude of the human spirit that shines through. Well worth a watch if you can catch it.
Dr Scroggy’s War is playing until Friday 10th October 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT. Contains strong language. For tickets and more information go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/doctor-scroggys-war