Hampstead Theatre, London
In his imaginary Epitaphs of the War, published in 1919, Rudyard Kipling included one entitled "Common Form": "If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied." The lines could serve as an epigram for : the central event of the drama is the death of Kipling's only son, John, in the Battle of Loos in 1915. The play - an impressive writing debut for the actor David Haig, who also stars as Kipling - questions the extent of Kipling's own responsibility for his son's death, and tries to show how he coped with the knowledge of his complicity.
Haig has said that he was inspired to write the play after being told he was a ringer for Kipling, and the resemblance is undeniable. It's not merely a physical impersonation, either: he mimics precisely some of the tones of voice that can be heard in Kipling's work. Particularly in the earlier scenes - coaching young John for his army interview, for example - he catches beautifully the faintly sickly joviality that infects much of Kipling's "lighter" work, and his oppressive, sentimentalised affection for his children.
What Haig misses, though, is the sheer energy, the jaunty anger that makes his work compelling. The failure is apparent when Haig takes centre- stage to deliver a speech on German aggression - his mild demeanour altogether out of keeping with his rabble-rousing denunciation of Hun atrocities and his vision of England under the German boot.
The sense that he has only seen one side of Kipling is reflected in the way the character is written, too. Among the passages of informative dialogue, and a flashback scene in which we see a younger Kipling spinning yarns to his children, there are some notable gaps - for example, Haig barely nods at Kipling's own miserable childhood, surely the key to understanding his own fondness for children, and retreats into childishness. And we get no hint of the effect John's death had on his writing: some of his finest stories (Mary Postgate, The Gardener) deal movingly with the effects of losing a child; while his later stories include imaginative recreations of trench warfare.
There are other flaws in the writing: Elsie, the daughter, is less a character than a dramatic device, a foil to Kipling's grand, self-denying folly; while his wife, Caroline (a miscast Belinda Lang), becomes an improbable Mother Courage figure, her concern for her children imbuing her with a clear-eyed pragmatism. It ends, too, on a clumsy irony, as Kipling listens to the news of Hitler's election as Germany's chancellor: "All for nothing," sighs Kipling.
Against that, the pains of being a celebrity's son are well-drawn (a sympathetic performance by John Light) and the scenes in the trenchespack some punch. It's a consistently watchable and absorbing drama, and one which, if it doesn't get to the soul of things, still makes a fine job of mapping out the essentials.
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