I’d never heard of square bullets. Or the Finborough Pub Theatre. Or hardly knew, to my shame, Tony Harrison – although I did know some of his work, most notably ‘V’.
So this could have been a recipe for disaster, especially when travelling 70 miles just for this performance. But the reviews were good and we are always on the lookout for something new to tempt us. And it turned out this was a rare treat indeed.
So soon after seeing Copenhagen at Chichester, and Women in Power at the Nuffield City Theatre, this revival of Harrison’s 1992 play “Square Rounds” was a perfect foil to both. Performed by a strong all-women cast playing strong men and strong women, the clash between science for good and science for war (is that never good?) was explored in a history told from the First World War back to the early 18 and mid 19 century and forward to the present day. The poetry blended arguments in the way that the original Puckle Machine Gun rather bizarrely was designed to fire round bullets at Christians and square bullets at Muslim Turks.
The easy poetry of this play blended the arguments as they raged back and forth, which made each monologue and dialogue mesmerisingly gripping. Simple set and costume changes moved the scene from factory floor to laboratory to battlefield and allowed the audience to concentrate on the sublime delivery of the words. Each discrete passage is conjured into being by the revolving magician’s box and her/his top hat, from which chemical elements are produced to show the progression from fertilisers to feed the world to chlorine gas to kill it. As Frtiz Haber, a German Jewish chemist (played by Philippa Quinn) responsible for the chemistry of both life and death, sets out – bullets and bombs are just chemical warfare which uses gas to propel death rather than cause it directly. And at least your corpse can be identified after a gas attack.
Haber is also the ringmaster magician who calls into being the other main characters – including his own wife Clara Immerwahr, passionately played by Gracy Goldman. Clara is another German Jewish chemist and the first woman chemist to be awarded a doctorate in Germany. A pacifist, she argues vehemently with her husband and points out that the anti-semitic Kaiser was unable to develop the gas-mask which would have won the war for Germany because he already had too many Jews working for him. And the gas-mask was being developed by another Jewish scientist.
As we approach Armistice Day, this essentially anti-war play will resonate strongly with many, and will be thought provoking for any who see it.
And the intimate space of the Finborough Pub Theatre was the perfect venue. 50 seats so you can almost touch the actors. You will certainly be touched by the emotion.
This revival only has a few days left to run. Catch it if you can.
At the Finborough, London, until 29 September.