Players dance round a confusion of war
Young has been encountering the casualties of Britain's colonial past
in the Oxford Stage Company's revival of John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's
Dance at the Oxford Playhouse.
Holmes's decision to revive this classic anti-colonial and anti-imperialist
play which promotes pacifism is an inspired one as tensions continue
to rise in Iraq.
Many critics were enraged by the original production, first performed
in 1959 at London's Royal Court Theatre, an occurrence unthinkable
While fewer people now question the futility of war, many will struggle
to understand the underlying theme behind this somewhat confused
Sergeant Musgrave's Dance remains John Arden's most celebrated work
which suggests that he may have peaked too early.
This is clearly the work of a young man of 29, who having experienced
military service as a teenager, penned this work to channel his
anger over an incident in Cyprus where innocent civilians were killed
by British soldiers.
Coming from the "Writers Group" who collected around Arnold Wesker
in the 50's, Arden reveals himself through this work to be a poet
who writes plays.
While the plot is fascinating and transparent, the underlying message
is not and one is left wondering if this play really is about pacifism.
direction superbly transports us to Victorian life in a mining town
where the workers are subjugated by a Holy Trinity comprised of
a mine owner, the parson and the constable.
The scarlet tunics of the army clash with the brown and tattered
attire of the miners as the mayor pontificates against the strikers
resplendent in his robes.
Four army deserters, sickened by what fighting for Queen Victoria's
Empire really meant - "killing people on their own streets" and
living in squalid conditions, descend on a Northern English town
looking for revenge for their wretched army lives.
Along with their Gatling gun they carry the corpse of their dead
colleague and pose as a recruitment party, freely spending the "Queen's
shilling" and initially clashing with the striking miners.
From Private Sparky's opening mutterings we are aware that this
adventure can have only one outcome - the gallows.
Billy Carter's performance as the garrulous Sparky is superbly observed
while Maxine Peake delivers the archetypal northern lass as the
I must also give a mention to Sam Cox whose portrayal of the condescending,
pious and exploitative parson brings some humour to this lengthy
and ponderous work.
It remains a fascinating portrait where Holmes's direction breathes
new life into Arden's seamless blending of song, poetry and even
The play continues at The Playhouse until November 8.