nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
August 14, 2010
Passchendaele is a sprawling World War I drama inspired by the lives of British commander Douglas Haig and society painter John Singer Sargent, who visited the Western Front in 1918. The play is ambitious in its scope and unusual in that it presents a fictitious relationship between the John Singer Sargent character and a Chinese laborer. However, without a unique perspective on the psychology of war, Passchendaele fails to offer much beyond the indisputable fact that war is horrific.
At the start of the play, an agitated World War I British soldier in a tattered bloody uniform rants about his injuries, evincing an incoherent mix of adulation and hatred for his General, until a nurse gives him a shot of morphine. We presumably go back in time to witness the General in question planning an assault on Passchendaele, a small town in Belgium. Meanwhile, a well-known artist has been commissioned to make a heroic painting on Anglo-American cooperation in the war and visits the front to gain inspiration. He befriends a Chinese laborer engaged in digging trenches, who becomes his guide and encourages him to paint a true portrait of the war in all its horrors.
Passchendaele is peppered with morphine-induced hallucinogenic scenes, as well as references to All Quiet on the Western Front and John McRae's famous poem, "In Flanders Field the Poppies Blow," but it fails to convey the tragedy of the war. Playwright John Rafter Lee never gets inside the skin of any of his characters and seems to continually be grasping for straws by latching on to now the color red, now the Indian god Vishnu. The General is a stodgy misogynist, the women all weep for their suffering children, the soldier is a twitching hysteric, and the Chinese laborer mysteriously knows more about painting (and everything, it seems) than the painter. The gruesomeness of the war is continually talked about but never seen or felt, with the stage completely barren except for three large boxes and several canvases that are all blank. Jonathan Winn is also heavy-handed in his direction of the actors, who extemporize at an excessive and exhaustive pitch. A standout in the cast is Elizabeth West, who plays the General's proto-feminist wife and a drill sergeant in a giant walrus mustache. As the Chinese laborer, David Shih injects humor in an otherwise somber script and manages to make believable a character whose wise nuggets of advice and repeated espousal of the superiority of the Chinese civilization could be rather insufferable played by a lesser actor.
The Battle of Passchendaele is reviled for being a phenomenal waste of life. Haig was obsessed with taking the town, even when it was clear that success was improbable. 360,000 British men died in a three-month assault that only penetrated 11 kilometers into the German front. The Germans themselves lost 245,000. Many of these men were casualties of an unusually rainy winter, which turned the trenches into nearly impassible mud. Passchendaele makes an earnest attempt to conjure this senseless sacrifice and to create a balanced portrait of a man who would make such an astounding decision, but like the battle, it barely penetrates the front.