This harrowing memoir from a dismembered soldier is a fitting contribution to the First World War centenary.
After his arms, legs and face have all been blown off during a shell attack in the trenches, a soldier might well prefer to die rather than be saved by surgeons eager to show just how far their skills extend.
But for Joe Bonham, waking up to find himself trapped in a body that’s little more than a stump, the power of making any decisions about his life is stripped from him, along with his identity and any hopes for a future as a loving husband and dutiful son.
‘‘Johnny Got His Gun’’, adapted by Bradley Rand Smith from the 1939 novel by Dalton Trumbo, is a one-man show with the superb Jack Holden as the broken soldier. His previous experience in the National Theatre’s “War Horse” might suggest Holden is becoming a WW1 specialist, but this drama is a wide-ranging examination of how a once eager youth struggles to regain control over his own mind in the face of unspeakable physical misery.
Holden presents an entirely gripping account of Joe’s agonies, flipping between the open-hearted boy remembering his father’s selfless love, and the brutalised soldier spraying a rotting enemy corpse with machine-gun fire to save himself the bother of burying him.
His desperate cries to his mother from his hospital bed, begging her to wake him from the depths of this all-too-real nightmare, are truly heartbreaking – and so is his soldier’s horror of a rat attack.
But deaf and blind Joe’s gradual realisation that he can identify the dawn by the subtle changes in temperature leads to further ambition. His head-banging Morse code is eventually recognised – but his pleas for freedom are brushed aside. After all, the sight of him might scare other men away from becoming soldiers…
David Mercatali’s direction maintains the play’s powerful momentum. There’s also excellent work from Max Pappenheim, whose sound design allows us to experience the muffled world of a man whose hearing has been blown away along with his ears, and Christopher Nairne’s evocative lighting gives fresh intensity to the swiftly changing scenes.
In the programme notes, Stop the War suggests the Government’s £50m spend on commemorating the Great War aims to “restore worn out notions of military glory and patriotic sacrifice.”
But ‘‘Johnny Got His Gun’’ is a desperate, raging polemic against any such notions, with Joe Bonham urging us to recognise how the chance to live means more to a man than any ideal of liberty ever could.
It’s a play that speaks for the dead. And as Joe points out, it’s not the generals who die in wars.
First published May 2014, whatsonstage.com