THE words of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon have probably never been more poignant than this year – the centenary of the start of the First World War.
So, it’s a great time to revive Not About Heroes, Stephen MacDonald’s play which follows the friendship of the two war poets from their first meeting in hospital in 1917 until they parted in 1918, when Owen returned to active duty.
He was to be killed shortly before the war ended but his words in poems like Anthem For A Doomed Youth, Futility and Insensibility have lived on over the following decades.
I confess I didn’t know much about Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon either,” admits Ben Ashton, who plays Owen opposite James Howard’s Sassoon in Not About Heroes. “But I read the play and straight away I was gripped.
“It’s an intimate play about two people and their relationship, and when I read it I wanted to find out more about them straight away. It’s a great piece about two people who find each other, help each other and form a great relationship.”
Meeting Siegfried Sassoon completely transformed Owen’s life and helped make him what we now regard as one of the finest ever poets.
He said: “The transformation of Wilfred Owen is something that really interests me. It’s such a tragedy that just a week before Armistice he was killed, never to see the effect his poetry had on the world and our attitude towards the First World War.”
Portraying a young man whose words have had such an effect on the world is a long way from Ben’s first stage role – as the fourth King in the Year 6 production of The Nativity at Earley St Peter’s School in Reading.
“Yes, that’s right, the famous fourth King who didn’t make it to see baby Jesus as he was busy helping Babushka,” he smiles.
The role of Owen weighs a little heavier. “Wilfred Owen was a real person who lived and breathed, so I feel a huge responsibility to do justice to the man and his family,” he explains.
“Charting the journey from who the man was before and after he met Siegfried Sassoon is also a challenge.”
Another big challenge for Ashton is also going to be living with a moustache for four months. “I had to grow one for a previous tour and got so much stick for it from friends and family, and even from strangers walking down the street,” he laughs.
“Back in the First World War it was commonplace for a man of my age to sport a moustache, but that trend seems to have waned.”
But he’s still relishing the upcoming tour, and says: “I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity of going out on stage every performance and doing what I love, in a great play, playing a great person opposite a great actor.”
NOT About Heroes will be at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on Friday, September 19 and Saturday, September 20.