IT TAKES IMMENSE skill and maturity to know that the telling of a story filled with detail and drama, with interstices of horror and loss and replete with almost 60-year-old ghosts is done not with gimmicks and tricks, with big noise and flashing lights, but with an old man with a quiet voice. This is what you can anticipate in Peter Terry’s beautiful piece of theatre, At All Costs, a work that speaks of war in all its direness, on show at Theatre on the Square in Sandton until July 23.
Built along the principles that a whisper is often more powerful than a bellow, and that the haphazard nature of poems and memories tells more than an account of facts, this work is stripped to the bone and takes you to the nub and thrust of Delville Wood in July of 1916, where many young men – including a disproportionate amount of South Africans – were inspired by the idea of an adventure and blown to shreds, either physically or emotionally by the immensity and actuality of war.
It is 1970. And you are part of a community hall-based audience. You’re listening to David Wells (Peter Terry) speak. He’s a veteran of arguably one of the more brutal moments in the Great War. And it is here that he takes you by the hand and into a journey of foot and heart and soul that will shatter you as you sit there listening to these beautiful words and those guttural wordless, wracking sobs, that come with a basic sense of truth, wiped clean of melodrama.
But more than one elderly man’s memories of hell beyond description, this work, with its crisp and tight language, with its descriptions so bold and direct that you can smell the stench of war and see the birds on the wing in a virgin forest, reaches into the heart of everyman. It is language that skirts triteness on this kind of topic that has been dealt with by millions in myriads of ways over the years. Terry’s work stands its own ground with freshness and depth, alongside the war etchings of German artist Otto Dix or the riveting poetry of men of the ilk of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
But in Terry’s able hands, the narrative reaches deeper than the history or literature classroom can do: We’ve all been through the idea of war – and situations where death surrounds us to our gills – in the context of a Covid ward, on the other end of a riot, a protest in your neighbourhood, a shooting at a school, apartheid in whatever form it touched your life, the news of wanton death and destruction in the Ukraine. Even the idiotic relentless ebb and flow of loadshedding in this country echoes with the desperate ludicrousness of trying to make sense of a world tainted by rules that are fathomless, inscrutable and dangerous.
And on many levels, of course, this is a man’s story. Men conscripted to fight in the Great War were classically white and young and filled with bravado and testosterone. But it shifts and flows around the values and context of manhood of the time, and yields a perfect reflection of what it was to be the woman who held her man through his lifetime of nightmares, after being broken by something too big for either of them to understand.
In short, this haiku of a play lasts just under an hour, but it feels much deeper, much longer. Not because you may get restless, but because Terry opens a huge trajectory of time and space, of bottled emotions and hidden catastrophe that privilege you to see the inner core of his character, in a way that touches your own central nerve system and history; which battles you have faced and won (and which have broken you on the inside, if not the outside). It’s a work that reflects with carefully selected words on the folly of a civilisation which wastes the lives of its youth in the face of nationalism but rather than shifting into political terrain, it is a work that remains utterly and completely human. At all costs.
- At All Costs is written and performed by Peter Terry. Directed by Janice Honeyman, with Sarah Terry as the announcer; produced by Daphne Kuhn, it performs until July 23 at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton.