Heroes, onstage in St. Louis through October 9, is a comedy. A sad comedy. Written in 2003 by a French playwright, Gérald Sibleyras, and translated two years later by Tom Stoppard. The following year it won London’s coveted Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
Set in 1959 in a home for retired soldiers, the play focuses on three World War I veterans made miserable by their monotonous confinement and incessant birthday parties. Henri has a badly damaged leg and walks with a cane. Gustave, who was exceptionally brave in the war, now has agoraphobia. A piece of shrapnel rattles around in Philippe’s skull, and every five minutes or so, it presses against his brain and he passes out. He also has delusions, and he is pretty sure the nun who most enjoys throwing their birthday parties kills off anyone who dares have a birthday already claimed by someone else.
Together, the three old soldiers hatch a crazy plan to escape. For a picnic. This is their last, desperate bid for freedom, and they are all physically incapable of pulling it off. As they scheme and squabble (“So, as far as you’re concerned, the Indochina peninsula with all its treasures and a picnic in a clearing are the same thing?”), they swap stories. The action is as confined as they are, taking place on a patio furnished with a bench, two chairs, and a stone statue of a dog, Gerald (who plays a role in the ensuing drama).
Heroes is the first production of St. Louis’s new Albion Theatre company. Founder and artistic director Robert Ashton was born in Lancashire, and he has seen many a British play lose a bit in translation when performed in the Midwest. The emphasis on class structure is often tacit and easily missed by an American, and certain words and turns of phrase are not what they seem. “Two countries separated by a common language,” he reminds me, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw. “Rather than change the terms, we want to explain them.”
Though the company is named Albion (the earliest known name for Britain), Ashton also wants to bring Irish plays to the stage. “There are neat political demarcations in the U.K.,” he says, “but the reality is one of much more mixing and integration. The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best critical looks at Victorian manners and class system—it’s quintessentially English—yet it’s written by an Irishman. The Catholic church censored so much that Irish authors often had to escape Ireland. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw both made their name there. But the Irish had a long oral tradition, as did the Welsh, and that makes their language melodic, which blends well for theatre.”
Britain has its own strong tradition: roaming theater companies in the Middle Ages; Shakespeare and all those who either inspired him or were inspired by him; and a contemporary scene that receives robust support across the continuum, from small regional theatres to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Albion will have rich reserves of material. And because today’s U.K. is wildly diverse, there is no risk of homogeneity. Contemporary plays will offer chances to draw in actors and audiences from the West Indies, India, Africa, the Middle East…. At the same time, theming the plays’ geographical origin will give theatregoers a sense of what to expect—and a confidence that they will be guided through the work.
“British comedy is different,” Ashton observes. “It’s often quite straight-faced; it’s a dry humor. There’s a way of doing it that signals what you are doing”—without turning it into schtick.” His French is not pliable enough to tell him just how many liberties Stoppard took. The credit is for translation and adaptation, so we can be fairly sure he had some fun. But he has also said, “One of the attractions of translating Heroes is that it’s not the kind of play that I write. If it had been, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to translate it. There are no one-liners. It’s much more a truthful comedy than a play of dazzling wit.”
The frequent comparison is to Waiting for Godot, described by critic Vivian Mercier as achieving “a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.” As critic Bob Wilcox points out in his review of this production, “the old veterans know who their Godot is, and know that he will come, some day. He’s Death.” And yet, the play has “just the right amount of sparkle,” Wilcox continues. Laughing in the face of.
Heroes also brings the charm of old guys who, after a storied life, can finally admit their limitations. That sounds sadistic, but it releases a huge fondness in me, one I would like to lavish on their younger counterparts but cannot, because they are always trying too hard.
Ashton read law in college but had zero interest in becoming a barrister. Once here, he found work in the manufacturing industry and wound up overseeing both human resources and the legal department. For a break, he returned to his early love of acting (you can find his name in at least fifty programs). Directing would have been too much like his day job, but acting required a pure concentration that was the perfect escape.
He retired early and turned his hand to directing about ten years ago. Now, he is starting a theater company. His experience on various theatre and arts boards has helped, and so have friends with marketing expertise. He even did an interview with Gerald, the stone dog, inquiring about his earlier career experiences working with Francois Truffaut. The dog keeps a poignant silence.
To find an audience, Ashton and his fellow board members have cast all sorts of nets—mailing lists for Washington University alums, British descendants, theatre lovers…. Some people reply that they do not come to “that part of town.” (Heroes is staged at The Kranzberg Art Center Black Box Theater in Grand Center.) Some are still leery about contagion in a space that intimate. Others have stopped making long-term plans and only commit spur of the moment. Many are more inclined to cuddle on their sofa and stream.
In short, this a tricky time to start a theatre company. But halfway into its run, the play is a resounding success. It ignores short attention spans, opening with the three vets sitting silent on the patio, staring at the weather. “Pauses are very long onstage,” Ashton says, “and they’re even longer for the actors!” But the stage is set for three lives that have nearly ground to a halt—and the banter that follows is clever, the action is funny and sometimes ridiculous, and the underlying themes of old age, institutionalization, and the traumatic damage of war are sunk deep in the universal. Suffice it to say, nobody dozes off.
“It’s live,” Ashton says. “You are there together in that small space. The actors can do almost what you see in the movies, with these small physical gestures that can be quite subtle. But they are not remote. They can screw up. Things can go wrong. One of the first shows, the guy who passes out all the time does a roll as he’s fainting, and his shoe comes off and flies into the audience. They loved it, because they could watch him recover and rescue the moment. You can’t get that on a screen. You can’t have the same emotional response that you have to a person who is there in front of you.
“But you do have to come out,” he adds. “We are still social creatures. We have to be careful about losing that.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.