A review of Shane Burke’s Forget Me Not at the Tea House Theatre.
When it comes to the harrowing harshness of the great world wars, poetry is the only reliable means of comprehending the impact it had on people.
“Remember me when I’m dead, and simplify me when I’m dead,” is the verse that immediately stands out in the programme of Shane Burke’s theatrical production Forget Me Not. Although Keith Douglas is a name somewhat eclipsed by the likes of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, his recollection of World War II is today regarded as one of the best, providing a crucial evolutionary standpoint placed next to his predecessors.
There’s no standard blueprint for a war poet, but if there were, Douglas would fit it quite well. A commander with an astute educational background and a defining spell at Oxford University, Douglas is the quintessential wartime literary gent. But what makes him unique is his wish to break free of the shackles of ‘institutionalisation’ and instead pursue a far less accepted path. Wartime poetry, he would say, isn’t meant to be dressed up or fanciful, but rather document a period of history where events would speak for themself, if allowed to.
History must prevail
The Tea House Theatre (fascinating venue, terrifying proprietor) in Vauxhall is in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886, “immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s eponymous novel”, the website claims. The tea house turns theatre at night and provides a most appropriate setting for the two-person production, as the audience huddles around a small stage in a room littered with ornate furniture and scribblings from the Diary of Samuel Pepys on the wall.
Tom Worsley – playing Douglas – is strutting around the stage as the audience filters into the room with gramophone music eerily setting the mood in the background. The frenzied publishing assistant Betty Jesse – portrayed by Annabella Forbes – soon joins him, much to the dismay of Douglas, who displays affection, condescension and humility in an almost schizophrenic manner throughout the show as he is challenged by Ms Jesse’s assertive professionalism.
His inability to establish a familiar relationship is infuriating for Douglas, who often trips into inappropriate invasiveness as he struggles to comprehend a woman with an air of independence which is still out of character for war-torn Britain. Confronted by his morbid fear of death and his work’s legacy, Douglas must overcome his smitten perplexity of ‘Miss Jesse’ in order to see that his work reaches bookshelves, rather than being resigned to his mother’s bedside table.
In memory of Keith Douglas
Theatrical productions based on wartime plays carry with them the initial trepidation that they might try to replicate powerful verse that is not translatable on stage – a brave, if not foolish endeavour. But Forget Me Not succeeds in portraying aspects of Douglas’ legacy through an educated portrayal of his character.
Placed in a conflicting environment which is complemented by Forbes’ powerful portrayal of Betty- the many aspects of a fascinating character are brought to life through a memorable interaction that made, but could have broke, one of the wartime greats. Highly recommended.
Forget Me not – the fascinating true story of WWII poet Keith Douglas – one act, two actors. 7.30pm the Vauxhall Teahouse Theatre. Ticket available here