Review: When the War Came Home, Citadel Arts

WtWCHCitadel Arts is not a company I have come across before, but when I found a play they were running that was billed as being about Edinburgh women’s stories from the First World War, I was delighted and determined to head along. 

Just as a bit of background, Citadel Arts are an Edinburgh-based theatre company run by Liz Hare. When the War Came Home, which was also directed by Liz Hare, is clearly a project of a great deal of love and care (a very expensive looking programme explained the background); the play is a Lottery funded combined project between Citadel and WEA Scotland and the script was penned by seven writers who (the programme told me) have done extensive historical research. The play was performed by a cast of four who played all of the various parts in a smorgasbord of interwoven stories.

And well researched this project certainly is. From the exposition-heavy start of the play, it was clear that the writers and actors had information on their side. What my lovely programme also told me was that the writers each researched separately. I’m assuming their tales were later woven into one narrative. What has emerged therefore, struggles for a consistent tone or style, probably due to all the voices. This made me wonder several times why they hadn’t just left the performance as seven far more comprehensible plays.

 ‘A moving play about the impact of World War I on Edinburgh scripted by 7 writers in the WEA Playwrights Workshop. The voices of Scottish women are heard: Elsie Inglis who supported the war and Chrystal MacMillan who opposed it passionately. And ordinary women see their families torn apart and their own health ruined by war.’

This is the full description of the play quoted from the facebook event. ‘Excellent’, I thought, ‘a story about women during the war, not yet another tale of soldiers from the trenches.’ So imagine my surprise when I open up my lovely shiny programme to find that of the cast of four, only one is female. Never mind, I told myself, maybe she has a really major part. Maybe she narrates or something. Maybe there is cross dressing. Maybe there is a really good reason. None of the above. She had about a quarter share of the action – which in terms of the actors is fair. But – quick bit of maths – that meant that only one quarter of this ‘voices of Scottish women’ was actually women. Now this is the oldest one in the book from a man-centric culture – the description of something that has some women in it as being ‘about women’, despite the fact that the basic statistics are on the side of the men, because we as a culture are so used to things being 100% male that any less seems girly. I had expected better, however, and this pissed me off.

To be fair, Andrea MacKenzie, who played all the women, did one hell of a job and jumped from one extreme emotional state to another with remarkable ease. She even made a lovely job of the unexpected singing. MacKenzie’s acting talent alone made all of the female characters stand out as she narrated/performed a series of interesting stories: women in factories suffering from illness from the TNT in the munitions they are making, and being killed making; Elsie Inglis who served as a doctor on the front line and headed up a hospital staffed entirely by women etc etc.

But among these were various other more familiar stories that were simply less interesting, less engaging and a waste of much needed narrative space. The male parts were played by Euan Bennet, Rob Flett and Mark Kydd, the latter two of whom, to be quite frank, we could have done without entirely. Whether this is down to their performance or the writing I couldn’t quite tell. Maybe I just didn’t care – after all facebook had told me this was a play about women. Bennet is clearly a lovely actor and his performance of an Edinburgh boy sent to the front line at 15 only to return shell-shocked, was very moving. I felt that he could have done a lot more, however, had he not been given a series of ‘youngest man’ parts that became increasingly difficult to distinguish.

Bennet’s final part, Wilfred Owen, really summed up the problem with this entire play; it had no idea which story to tell, not least because it was introducing characters ten minutes from the end. And as Bennet struggled to get to grips with the English RP accent tagged onto the end of an Edinburgh play I couldn’t help but wonder why he had to bother. Stories of people such as Wilfred Owen have been told before and better.

When the War Came Home zipped back and forth from the front line to various sections of Edinburgh, showed snippets about butchers, mothers, sons, journalists, a very baffling scene with some very dodgy accents which I only much later realised was meant to be about the Serbian assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand, pro war campaigners, anti war campaigners, a few of whom would occasionally burst into song, and I was quite simply lost amid characters, costume changes, a couple of video clips, bursts of fake applause from the tech and, in the second half, what I can only assume was an attempt to burn through the remainders of the Lottery funding in dry ice.

I suppose the main problem was that I just didn’t care. In the entire play there was two stories I cared about – the 15 year old boy who leaves his mother’s home to join up and the deeply moving scene when MacKenzie played a mother grieving her son who died in a train crash at Gretna involving hundreds of Leith soldiers on their way to the front line. So why bother with all the other stories? Or why not at least, each author pick on one story? There is such a thing as too much information and there is certainly such a thing as too many characters. And I couldn’t help but feel that if this play had actually focused on the stories it said it was going to tell, those of Edinburgh women in the First World War, then it would have been a hell of a lot better.

Where it comes to the First World War and the death of thousands of soldiers on the front line, it seems rather pettish to say ‘but what about the women’. Now beyond the fact that this is always a relevant question, I actually think that, from a storyteller’s point of view, it is a gift. It is a chance to tell a story nobody else is bothering about, which so long as the centenary rush goes on, is probably going to be a very relevant challenge.

When the War Came Home was performed on Wed 14th Jan at St Brides Centre, Edinburgh. There will be a second performance on Fri 16th, 7pm at Tynecastle High. Find further information about Citadel Arts here.

Laura Witz