The Pilgrim Players’ performance of Mr. Christopher Fry’s new play, “A Sleep of Prisoners,” at St. George’s Church, Leeds, this week, should prove to be one of the most important events in the city’s Festival of Britain celebrations.
First, the producers and four actors are the original company which gave the world premiere of the play at the University Church, Oxford. Secondly, it is a moving, though rather complex play, passionately acted and sensitively produced. The performance, last night left the audience greatly stirred, emotionally and mentally.
The play is an investigation of the problems of four prisoners of war who, locked in a church, find that personal and general conflicts become explosive in confinement. Private King (played by Leonard White) is a “clumsy warlike bulldozer” who loses his temper with the contemplative, fatalistic Private Able (Denholm Elliott) and half strangles him. Corporal Adams (Stanley Baker) and the bucolic Private Meadows (Hugh Fryse) separate them before murder is done. Then comes night and sleep.
Here the action leaves the rough, earthy world of the “barrack room,” and becomes a complex morality play. In succeeding dreams each prisoner demonstrates his response to the attempted murder, extending himself, his companions and the problems they face on to a spiritual plane. By use of spotlights the producer (Michael Macowan) focuses attention on each soldier in turn, and the others slip from their bunks to enact the characters of his dream.
The attempted murder is seen successively in the conflicts of Cain and Abel, David and Absalom, Abraham and Isaac, and lastly, in the fate of Meshac, Shedrac and Abednego in the fiery furnace.
The main interest of Mr. Fry in this contemporary version of the medieval allegorical drama, “Everyman,” is a metaphysical one – how men see themselves and each other, and the struggle of Man to find a meaning in life and a progress of history. Like the poetry of T. S, Eliot and the painting of Picasso, “A Sleep of Prisoners” reflects a chaotic contemporary world, where Man is unsure of his followers, his standards of conduct, his beliefs and his God. He is even unsure of himself.
Mr. Fry’s poetry is a joy to listen to – witty, and lyrical, full of images which draw their life from racy modern speech, the very blood of the barrack room. The cast do full justice to it, and all act with a passionate conviction which is an inspiration to watch. But “watch” is the wrong word for this performance. The audience feel at one with the actors, sharing the passions and mental conflicts of the protagonists – the acid test of a good play.
There are performances every night, this week at 7.30, and matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30.
J. K. S. B.