Through October 6
O‘FLAHERTY V.C. Royal George Theatre/Shaw Festival
Why do men enlist and why do men fight?
That’s what George Bernard Shaw was questioning in “O’Flaherty V.C.”
In a Shaw Festival season heavily focused on World War I, this is Shaw writing about the two key questions.
In 1915, when the full horror of “The Great War was just becoming apparent, with the most awful battles like The Somme and, for Americans, Belleau Wood to come.
Shaw had been opposed to the war from the beginning and paid a heavy price for the opposition.
It was too early for the awfulness of the war to become obvious, in the toll of dead, wounded and treasure.
While the playwright used the war for material, later, he produced only two one-acts directly about the war, “O’Flaherty V.C.” and “The Inca of Perusalem,” about Kaiser Wilhelm.
O’Flaherty (Ben Sanders) has just won the Victoria Cross, still Britain’s highest medal for valor, and often awarded posthumously.
He’s been brought back to Ireland in a recruiting push since this was still a time of volunteers, with conscription a year away.
He’s brought to his home area to visit his mother (Tara Rosling) and his girlfriend (Gabriella Sundar Singh) and the great estate where he grew up.
As a common soldier, he’s accompanied by the lord of the estate, General Sir Pearce Madigan, (Patrick McManus).
The general is a caricature of the great nobles and generals, believing centuries of propaganda about the Irish, his tenants and common soldiers.
This is set in the year before it all blew up in the Easter Rebellion, the bloodbath of an uprising against British rule, with the prospect of “Home Rule” postponed until some time after the war.
It did take a few years of war and civil war, but 26 counties of Ireland did get, first, Home Rule and then independence.
The other six counties?
That’s still an issue, particularly in the UK desire to leave the European Union.
In a prelude to the show, this year’s Lunchtime Theatre, the cast performs Irish songs while recruiting posters from the great Irish regiments move across a screen.
Shaw based O’Flaherty on an actual V.C. winner, a man who had served in the Irish Guards before becoming a Canadian Mountie and then returning to The Guards when the war starts.
O’Flaherty tells the general he enlisted just to get out of Ireland, with no loyalty to “King and Country,” whose mother would have preferred he fight against the English and killed so many Germans because they would have killed him.
He’s being honored now after receiving the medal from the King and Queen because he will recruit more Irish from the death machine.
Instead, he tells the general of reality of common soldiers and what the tenants on the general’s great estate really think of him and his regime.
Today, if you staged “O’Flaherty V.C.” on an army base, the men and women in uniform would probably completely understand what he was saying, more than a century ago.
Soldiers fight for each other, their wingman in the air, the guy in the next foxhole, the Marine they went through Parris Island with or the guy in the next bunk aboard ship.
Probably few who have been in uniform for all that long can say I believed the official reasons for war.
That’s why “O’Flaherty V.C.” is worth seeing and thinking about, taking advantage of strong performances from Sanders and McManus on Sue LePage’s fine set, with effective direction from Kimberley Rampersad.
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