Bury the Dead ★★★★

A timely production of Irwin Shaw’s metaphor for the pain of war and remembrance

Bronx-born Jewish writer Irwin Shaw served in the US army in World War II, but he wrote this haunting expressionist drama in 1936, aged only 23. Although he sets it in “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night”, it is perhaps more a comment on the waging of World War I than a prediction of the second. The dead of Shaw’s war refuse to lie down and be buried, but this is no Halloween tale of horror. It is rather a powerful metaphor, a starting point for a conversation about war and its futility, a way of giving a voice to the common soldier and his loved ones.

Director Rafaella Marcus’s visceral production grabs its audience with a filmic opening. The burial detachment march around the square, formed by designer Verity Johnson’s crates surrounding a shallow makeshift mass grave, beautifully singing a threnody (lament for the dead), with a mournful, period jazz feel. Martha Godfrey’s sombre lighting enhances the monochrome movie feel.

A priest and a rabbi (one of the dead is Private Levy – “with that name we won’t take any chances” decides the commanding officer) deliver the last rites, the clerics played authentically by Simon Balfour and Malcolm Ward, who also appear as a brace of generals. But it’s not long before the three corpses slowly and deliberately shed their body bags and stand in white shirts spattered with blood (created by Johnson’s embroidery), fixing the living with their intense, deliberate gaze.

Each of these three actors – Keeran Blessie, Stuart Nunn and Tom Larkin – represents two dead soldiers simultaneously, a necessary device in this small space, where the cast is already 11-strong. Given the surrealism, it works, especially under the scrutiny of a doctor giving her six diagnoses of fatal trauma, duly noted by her stenographer. These are two of a clutch of powerful cameos from Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor, who play all the female roles, plus a newspaper editor and reporter working on how to spin this story.

Later, three of the actors playing the living soldiers morph into three of the dead soldiers, a thought-provoking device as the casualties mount. Meanwhile the three dead remain implacably motionless, stubbornly still standing. The rattled generals, faced with insubordination from their living troops who, led by Scott Westwood’s impressively earnest and upright bespectacled sergeant, refuse to attempt a forced burial, seek to bully or cajole the dead into obeying orders to lie down in their graves.

When the generals appeal to the womenfolk to get their dead to be buried, the playwright’s decision to give each rebellious corpse a scene with a wife, girlfriend or mother means the action becomes a tad formulaic. Nonetheless the quality of the performances, of the women especially, makes for a moving resolution, especially given an apocalyptic climax where church and state – and even exorcism – fail to bully the dead.

“Wars are won only when the fallen are buried and forgotten,” declare the generals. At this moment, our acts of remembrance worldwide prove that remembering the dead is part of the peace and healing process and this is surely a vital part of the message of this surreal yet uplifting drama.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Bury the Dead runs until Saturday 24 November. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3pm (Sat & Sun only). £18-£20, £16-£18 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 012 2335 7851. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk