Matthew Tennyson

Benediction

21/05/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Once thought of as the foremost chronicler of British working-class life, writer/director Terence Davies turns his attention to the more privileged world of the poet and novelist, Seigfried Sassoon, in a bleak but affecting account of his life. When we first meet Sassoon (Jack Lowden) he’s already a decorated war hero, who has publicly announced his hatred for the political machinations of the conflict and his refusal to have anything more to do with it.

He’s duly packed off to Craiglockheart, Scotland, to undergo ‘therapy’ and is issued with an armband which identifies him as suffering from mental health issues, rather than as a conscientious objector. The latter, of course, generally tended to end up in front of a firing squad.

At Craiglockheart, Sassoon finds himself under the sympathetic care of Dr Rivers (Ben Daniels), who – like Sassoon – is secretly homosexual; it’s also here that he meets young poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennysson), to whom he becomes a friend and a mentor – whilst wistfully observing that Owen is the greater talent. Owen, of course, is soon declared to be ‘cured’ and despatched back to the trenches, where he is destined to die at just twenty-five years old.

As the years roll by and the jazz age seems to offer the promise of a more permissive society, Sassoon moves through a series of relationships with unsuitable men. These include Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), depicted here as a thoroughly odious piece of work – and Stephen Tennent (Calam Lynch), who despises the very concept of fidelity. Davies captures the spirit of the age with great skill and the marvellously bitchy banter deployed by Sassoon’s acquaintances is endlessly entertaining. There’s also an uncomfortable scene where Sassoon is invited to recite a poem at a soirée and manages to destroy the evening with the literary equivalent of an articulated lorry smashing through a plate glass window.

Again the years roll by and another war ensues. In an ill-advised attempt to achieve outward respectability, Sassoon decides to marry Hester Gatty (Kate Philips), and it’s clear from the outset that their marriage is not going to end well. In later scenes, the poet has transformed into a bitter, guilt-wracked recluse – this version played by Peter Capaldi – struggling to connect with his son, George (Richard Goulding), and haunted by the fact that he has never found the acclaim he feels is his due. Capaldi looks nothing like Lowden, but perhaps that’s the point. Isolated in a world he no longer identifies with – a straight world of pop music and disposable trivia – Sassoon really does seem like an entirely different person.

Austere and elegiac, Benediction won’t be for everyone, but for poetry lovers there are readings of some of Sassoon’s finest works, often recited over harrowing black and white sequences from the First World War – the spectre that shaped his talent and from which he never really escaped. It’s perhaps ironic that the film’s moving climax is handed over to Wilfred Owen, whose shattering poem, Disabled, provides the soundtrack for Sassoon’s greatest moment of self-realisation.

Benediction is a fascinating piece – an evocation of a period that seemed to offer the possibility of sexual freedom, but somehow never truly delivered on that promise – and the life story of a man haunted by his own ghosts.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

A Monster Calls

05/06/20

Old Vic/YouTube

Looking back through my diary of another life, in another time, I note that I was due to see the touring production of this play at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in early April 2020. It now seems unlikely that this was ever a possibility. Sitting in a crowded auditorium, enjoying a live performance? Is that really how we used to carry on?

Some productions have added resonance because of personal experience. Back in 2006 when I’d just embarked on my career as a children’s author, I was fortunate enough to meet Siobhan Dowd, when our respective debut novels were nominated for the same award. She was utterly charming and I had no inkling then that she was only a year away from her untimely death from breast cancer. A Monster Calls was an outline for a future novel that she didn’t live long enough to deliver to her publishers. It was subsequently completed by Patrick Ness and became a huge success in 2012.

I also loved the film version, directed by J A Bayona in 2017, which (another coincidence) featured one of Susan’s drama school pupils in the lead role (although she didn’t actually teach him). Even without these connections, this would still be a powerful and affecting story. I remember leaving the cinema, red-eyed from weeping.

This production, filmed onstage at the Old Vic in 2018, is now available for a limited run on YouTube. Though perhaps not as slickly filmed as many of the recent  ‘live’ theatre performances, there’s no doubting the emotional heft of the story. The central premise, clearly inspired by Siobhan’s own circumstances, is utterly heartbreaking.

Thirteen-year-old Conor McGregor (Matthew Tennyson) is in meltdown. His beloved Mother (Marianne Oldham) is gradually succumbing to cancer and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Estranged from his father (Felix Hayes), who now lives in America with his new family, Conor has nobody to confide in. He is being perpetually bullied at school and is resisting all attempts by his well-meaning grandmother (Selina Cadell) to make him accept that his life is about to undergo a massive change.

When his mother points out an ancient yew tree near to the family home, Conor begins to experience a series of bizarre visitations from The Monster (Stuart Goodwin) who lives within the tree. He relates a series of bizarre fairy stories and encourages Conor to face up to an awful truth…

There’s so much to relish here: the exquisite staging which ranges from stripped-back simplicity to explosions of almost pyschedellic colour; the ingenious use of ropes to evoke a whole series of images and settings; and there’s a sumptuous electronic soundtrack played live by Will and Benji Bower that adds a lush, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The thirteen-strong cast all offer exemplary performances, though of course it’s Tennyson, in the lead role, who carries the heaviest load.

Is it as good as witnessing the play live? No. Am I glad it exists? Damn right!

Those who haven’t experienced A Monster Calls should catch this while it’s still available (you have until 12th June). And those who already love it could do a lot worse than indulging in another helping, just to relish those bitter-sweet flavours.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney