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Truth in the Dark

Truth in the Dark

Anna Wheeler reviews a play inspired by the sapper William Hackett, ‘The Trench’, to mark the centenary of the end of World War One.

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One hundred years ago on 11th November 1918, World War One came to an end. There are no veterans from WW1 alive today. 

The Trench by Oliver Lansley and Theatre Company Les Enfants Terribles, is inspired by the true life story of Sapper William Hackett and four other miners of 254 Tunnelling Company, driving a tunnel towards the enemy lines below the cratered surface of the Givenchy sector of northern France.  The explosion of a heavy German mine (the Red Dragon) blows the tunnel in 25 feet, and the men are trapped.

Hackett is represented by the character ‘Bert’. The play focuses on life before the explosion and his friendship with Collins, one of his fellow, younger tunnellers; followed by Bert’s horrendous hallucinations and dreams in the aftermath of the explosion where Collins has disappeared.

The play is about salvation, the contradictions we’re presented with about getting it, and sacrifice. It also questions what is real and what is not – and yet what apparently is unreal contains within it truths to life which we didn’t see when we lived in the real. These are difficult, sometimes inaccessible or ugly truths, which are the key to salvation. 

Trapped in the tunnel, Bert is visited by a withered, black, demon–headed creature with hoof–like feet (a life–size puppet – the real yet unreal). The puppet struggles to pronounce the word ‘heart’ and has a menacing laugh, yet we never feel the creature itself is harmful. Perhaps an indication that death itself is not out to get us – only the trials and tribulations on the way to death are the challenge.

Bert is set three challenges by the creature. One is to walk along open country without looking down (if he did he would see the faces and body parts of soldiers).  The second is to solve the riddle that is set by another puppet – a huge, white, broken–winged creature wearing the rotting skeleton of a horse’s head, who asks – what is the ‘thing’ that can mend a broken heart?  Bert says ‘no thing’. The answer is correct. In the final challenge, he must physically battle a hideous red dragon. 

In his fight, he meets what he thinks is a German soldier and they engage in a ferocious fist fight.  Bert punches him to the ground, yet the soldier reaches out to him as he dies – Bert removes the mask the German wears, only to realise that the man beneath is the younger version of himself.  Bert holds him as he dies – his enemy, yet also himself, as the two identities morph into one. The enemies at this moment are not the enemies above ground but the mental torments of Bert’s own mind. He is drained by the loss of the self he once had, and by the knowledge that the ‘no thing’ of the second riddle is absolutely true. No–thing can change Bert’s situation – he is trapped.

A rescue party does reach Bert (as it did Hackett) and at the moment the lighted hole in the earth appears, so does Collins, who has managed to crawl from under rubble. Bert pushes Collins up to freedom but doesn’t make his own escape in time. The hole closes. A piercing light then comes from the same hole, this time to engulf Bert. We see his figure become a silhouette, vanishing to the backdrop of Alexander Wolfe’s moving soundtrack ‘Into The Deep’.

The play didn’t have to end in this overtly salvific way, but it does so for a reason. It isn’t by accident that the poster advertising The Trench has Bert gazing up, with arms outstretched as if on a Crucifix (reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s painting Christ of St John of the Cross). Bert encounters a series of ‘otherness’ in the fantastical, disturbing puppet characters, all representing aspects of the war soldiers had to deal with – most notably the enemy who had the face of Bert beneath his own who Bert meets, quite literally, head on, after he kills him. The enemy is another version of yourself – in war zones, the enemy is only a man like yourself, no more no less.

The play acknowledges aspects of the gospel that were challenged during the war – and continue to be challenged in wars today. The fact that we not only don’t love our enemy (as Matthew 5:44 asks us to), but positively have to hate them in order to ‘win’ a war; the fact that killing your fellow man brings you one step closer to killing your own soul. Conversely, Bert’s sacrifice for Collins plays straight into John 15:13: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. The play presents us with the contradictions of life, both of which the gospel acknowledges.  A man called Jesus was nailed to a cross dying a slow death of sacrifice, and in that moment is most ‘other’ as well as most familiar. Likewise, Bert’s faith in the fictions that he is presented with throughout the play, apparently unreal and other, ultimately pull him back to reality and his final salvation.

Bert moving into the light, heaven, a better next life – or whatever you see it as – is an acknowledgement of the uncomfortable experience of war.  Why should any man have to go through a physical and existential assault to achieve his reward and win the battle, over and over again, in never–ending wars?  As the white winged creature encourages us to admit, there is no answer – and we live with that, and ought to remain shaken by it.

One hundred years on we remember William Hackett (who was awarded a Victoria Cross for his selfless action) and the millions like him. The greatest tribute to them would be to be grieved and deeply unsettled by the experience of war, so that it makes us strive for a more peaceful world.

 Image by Pixabay under a Creative Commons license 

Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler

Anna joined Theos in June 2015. She read Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and later gained a PG Diploma in Theatre.

Posted 5 November 2018

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