Soldiers, Finborough Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

With the Iraq war causing us to examine once again the ethics of treating civilians as collateral damage, this is a timely moment for the first revival in nearly 40 years of Soldiers, Rolf Hochhuth's contentious 1967 play about Churchill and the policy of fire-bombing German cities.

With the Iraq war causing us to examine once again the ethics of treating civilians as collateral damage, this is a timely moment for the first revival in nearly 40 years of Soldiers, Rolf Hochhuth's contentious 1967 play about Churchill and the policy of fire-bombing German cities. It's as a cause célèbre rather than as a passionate debate about morality in wartime that the piece is now chiefly remembered. The National Theatre turned the play down, and Soldiers had to wait for the demise of the Lord Chamberlain and theatrical censorship before it appeared in the West End.

John Terry's clear, committed production gives the play the fair hearing it deserves. It emphatically scotches the notion that the play is a vicious libel on a deceased national hero. It suggests that the topic that caused the furore - a subplot alleging Churchill's complicity in the death of General Sikorski, leader of the Polish government-in-exile - is not (as has been claimed) a red (or, indeed, Red) herring in the play's broad thematic scheme, but a clumsily dramatised strand that lacks convincing corroboration. And the production persuades you that, instead of being woodenly didactic, Soldiers thrives on the tension between Hochhuth's empathetic understanding of why people resorted to desperate measures in the war against Hitler and his passionate conviction that area bombing, uncondemned by any court, opened a grotesque new chapter in the history of inhumanity.

Trevor Cooper is splendid as Churchill, by turns a fierce bulldog, a petulant baby, a witty old ham and - at unforgettable moments - a man with a terribly lonely and troubled sense of his own historic destiny. Set in 1943, the plot and subplot are linked by a preoccupation with the irony that, in the struggle to win a war, nations find themselves reneging on the very principles that made them embark on it in the first place. Britain declared war to safeguard the independence of Poland, but then to keep Stalin sweet, Churchill is prepared to go back on those territorial guarantees. The death of Sikorski in a suspicious plane crash is supposed to symbolise this duplicity. The trouble, however, is that the play fails to establish that the Polish leader could ever have posed a sufficient threat to warrant this undercover activity.

In a fine and pointed piece of doubling, Graham Bowe, the actor playing Sikorski, reappears as another thorn in Churchill's side - George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, who engages the Prime Minister in the fiery climactic argument about the ethics of the fire-bombing campaign. It's intriguing that Hochhuth allows the bishop to go too far - claiming, say, that there's no difference between these victims and those of a sex-murderer. The opposition hit back with deftly landed punches, pointing out that in Hitler's England, the bishop would not be allowed to protest. But Bell rejects the implication of that and looks ahead instead to the parlous legacy of winning by morally questionable means. "Every founder is a conqueror. What," he asks, "will you have founded?"

To 21 August (020-7373 3842)

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