For King and Country review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘visceral power’
Amongst the forgotten stories of the First World War, those of the soldiers executed for desertion must be some of the most harrowing.
John Wilson’s 1963 courtroom drama For King and Country is set in a very specific cultural and historical context and isn’t without some dated tropes, yet it’s gripping stuff and the arguments it makes about male mental health remain pertinent in today’s society.
When Private Hamp, who served solidly if unspectacularly at the Front for all four years of the war, abandons the army for no apparent reason after the Battle of Passchendaele, it’s left to the (somewhat conveniently) enlightened Lieutenant Hargreaves (Lloyd Everitt) to patch together a defence. Adam Lawrence’s guileless Hamp is all “Yes, sir, you know what’s right, sir”, having never felt the need to be introspective or imaginative in the way in which he presents himself, making the audience physically wince at each faux pas he makes due to his disarming honesty.
Apart from the unnecessary battle montages between scenes, Paul Tomlinson’s production scarcely steps out of line and beautifully depicts the humanity underneath the stiff upper lips, performed by an immaculate ensemble against Jacqueline Gunn’s setting defined by an absence of colour amidst a horizon of wastelands.
Leading up the denouement is the exposition of the officer classes’ willingness to sacrifice the working-class foot soldiers they unthinkingly relied on, exemplified by Henry Proffit’s complex Lieutenant Webb, with his mix of cruelty and mercy that would be wholly incompatible in any other circumstances.