If there was one thing I was certain we didn't need this Fringe, it was yet another play about World War One. But this play is different: partly because actor-playwright Ross Ericson was once a serving soldier, and partly because it picks up the story where other scripts leave off. The imagery you expect is all there – the claustrophobic billet, the hammering rain, the tales of chest-deep mud – but there's something unfamiliar too, something that doesn't quite add up. So when it finally dawned on me just what this particular soldier was doing in the Somme, the desensitising effect of all those past productions suddenly drained away… and for the first time in a long time, I thought about the War with a genuine sense of horror.
The genius and power of The Unknown Soldier is that it tackles an incomprehensibly massive tragedy, but approaches it on a microscopic, humanising scale. By focusing on just a handful of stories from just a single soldier, Ericson amplifies rather than minimises the impact of his one-man script. You'll feel the effect most of all during a harrowing, utterly uncompromising depiction of close-quarter combat – a memory which returns to our unnamed protagonist every time he sleeps. There's a brutal reality here; a focus on both physical and psychological details, those tellingly meaningful specifics which broad-brush histories are forced to leave aside.
If we're honest, Ericson's a little on the grizzled side to represent doomed youth, but it's easy to understand why he's cast himself in the war-weary soldier's role. A burly, commanding figure, he epitomises a bulldog image of stolid sacrifice – of men who volunteered alongside their mates, and marched together through Hell. He radiates stage presence from every inch of his imposing frame, and director Michelle Yim makes the most of that natural physicality, finding excuses for dynamism and movement amidst even the more static monologues. But there's astonishing emotional depth in his performance as well: he doesn't need to tell us about the damage his character's suffered, because it's plain to see it in his eyes.
There are, as there must be, moments of levity too. The portrayals of the officers are deliciously stereotyped, filtered as they are through a lowly private's mind. And towards the end we're offered some much-needed respite, with an impish story of soldierly camaraderie (though sadly, we already know by then that there's no happy ending to this particular tale). A couple of passages might merit further development; an early discussion of a riot in Luton doesn't pull quite the weight it needs to, and I'm in two minds about the final plot twist, which both pushes the limits of plausibility and takes bold liberties with an iconic historical story.
But with or without a concluding gimmick, both storyline and delivery are strong enough to sustain this intense, affecting hour. So as it turns out, this is exactly the Western Front play the word still needs: one that's mature, restrained and powerful. And most of all, it's penned and performed with palpable heart – by a man you feel grasps the human cost of conflict, and truly understands what those long-dead veterans would have wanted him to say.