This year marks the centenary of the end of World War I, and among the buzzworthy commemorative projects is The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s ambitious tribute They Shall Not Grow Old, a colourized documentary with WWI footage.
“I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more,” Jackson said of the project, which is premiering this week at the BFI London Film Festival.
Humanity lies at the heart of war and its aftermath, though it may show contrasting sides. And where Jackson’s documentary depicts the broad picture of a historic event that changed the world, playwright Tom Stoppard’s Heroes — a 2005 translation of a French play, Le Vent Des Peupliers, by Gérald Sibleyras — offers a far more intimate view of the remnants of war.
Starting Tuesday, Malaysian audiences will be able to step into the world of Gustave, Henri and Philippe, three WWI veterans who are whiling away their days in an old soldiers’ nursing home. Staged by the British Academy of Performing Arts as part of its Poppies’ Arts Series — an arts festival held in remembrance of the 1918 armistice, which ended WWI — Heroes stars three theatre veterans, Patrick Teoh, Thor Kah Hoong and Paul M Baker.
As Options sits down with the cast, it is clear that it will be a lively production, despite being set in a nursing home.
“You might think that it is about three old soldiers, so it will move at a snail’s pace, but the pace of the story moves at a hundred miles per hour,” Teoh says of the witty play.
The actor, who plays Henri — the more pragmatic character — came on board when his neighbour and friend, Baker, asked him to look at the script.
“Tom Stoppard is a very, very good writer. It’s a very funny play. Not in the way that is slapstick, but amusing. The audience might want to also get a proper night’s sleep before coming because otherwise, you would miss a lot of wonderful lines,” Teoh adds.
When Baker, who is the principal of the British Academy of Performing Arts, decided to stage Heroes, Teoh passed the script to a friend, Thor, who loved it too.
“It is a comedy set in 1959, a nursing home where all the characters seem to have some kind of medical condition,” says Baker, a classical musician, composer and conductor who started his career in theatre back home in England. “My character has a bit of shrapnel in his head, while the other two — one lost half a leg and another is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They all have very different personalities and basically, they spend their time dreaming of the past, young women and an escape plan.”
Directing the veterans is Gavin Yap, who was not “feeling” the play when he initially read it. “It wasn’t that I found it hard to relate to but I usually take on work that I have an instant reaction to. Still, I was intrigued to know what these three saw in it, so I said I would like to hear all three of them read it before I decided. It came alive when they did, and I got an idea of how it could work,” says Yap.
He continues, “Even though it’s very naturalistic, I also saw the potential for a bit of absurdist humour, which I thought could be fun.”
When it originally premiered in London in 2005, in a production which starred famed actors Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Ken Stott, one critic called it a “gentle comedy”. That perhaps has something to do with the fact that the humour comes from the relationship and interaction between three people who are stuck with one another, both physically and perhaps emotionally, and how they navigate through their fears, insecurities and problems.
“I think it is very human and real. As the play goes along, you find out bits and pieces about them, and what’s nice is that you don’t have the conventional chunks of monologues by everyone, and you get to piece things together about who they are from their conversations,” explains Yap.
“My character has a few monologues but otherwise, it is one line each, rapidly,” says Thor. “Just like in real conversations, like this,” chimes in Teoh, and Baker quickly adds, “Frequently interrupting each other.”
It is a rare work that gives older actors the spotlight, and Teoh and Thor both agree that the roles are meaty. “The way it is written, every single line fits the characters’ personalities. Nothing is out of place,” Baker points out.
All three are equally strong, Thor notes. “One has more internal acting, whereas I have more lines to express myself. It is about the love-hate relationship between these three old men … but each of us have our vulnerable moments. I find that to be very nice and challenging.”
The three characters aren’t nice to each other though. “They care for each other but they are not nice,” Teoh says, alluding to the stiff upper lip typical of that generation.
“The way Paul, Patrick and Thor naturally talk to each other has also added a certain edgier and more aggressive quality to the play’s dialogues,” says Yap, who quips that he has to occasionally rein them in.
What makes Heroes a brilliant work is that it navigates life’s fragility while showing how the characters soldier on post-war.
“It is originally set in France but everyone will understand the relationship between three people who each have their own problems, who are stuck together with no choice. It’s a universal story,” says Teoh.
“They still have dreams. You don’t want to admit that your road has come to an end … that your life has ended. For my character, I still want to believe that I am young and there’s still hope in my life, adventure. ‘Come let’s go and do it!’ And we talk about it, we make an effort to plan, but we never go,” Thor adds.
Yap sums up: “It’s refreshing to have a play that deals with the ups and downs of life that allows and trusts the audience to also navigate and interpret it on their own to a certain extent. There are more than a few small powerful moments in the play reflecting that ultimately, life is something we can never go back and undo or redo. That resonates very strongly with me.”
Windsor Hall, British Academy of Performing Arts, second floor, Sunway Nexis, Kota Damansara. Until Oct 28. RM55. Purchase here. This article first appeared on Oct 22, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.