A playwright has used national amnesia about the detail and awfulness of past wars as the basis of his Edinburgh Fringe show.
Owen Sheers was inspired to write Unicorns, Almost after realising the tragedy that was never learn, each time we head towards war.
Fringe audiences will be able to see a highly immersive production of his one-man play Unicorns, Almost as part of this year’s Army@TheFringe programme, in association with Summerhall.
It tells the story of one of the greatest poets of World War II, Keith Douglas, who recovered from the wounds he suffered during the struggle in the Western Desert only to be killed, aged 24, three days after the D-Day landings.
Owen, a multiple award winning novelist and poet and BAFTA nominee, sees Douglas as someone with a remarkably modern voice and a powerful resonance today.
He said: ‘This was a man who was a soldier through and through. During El Alamein he had a nice safe desk job, but felt that was wrong, so he stole a truck and went to the front. He was welcomed when he got there because so many of the other officers were dead.
‘But there was nothing “king and country” about him, no easy nationalism. He simply saw that we had to beat the Nazis.’
Indeed did all he could to humanise his enemies. In Vergissmeinnicht (forget me not) he described discovering the corpse of a German soldier who had tried to kill him, lying beside a photo of his lover – the name Steffi written in gothic script.
Owen’s is well known for theatrical work including The Two Worlds of Charlie F, about the experience of British veterans wounded in Afghanistan, which won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award when it came to the Fringe in 2012.
He said: ‘The remarkable thing about that was that you would have military veterans and anti war protestors sitting beside each other. The thing they had in common was they both wanted the unflinching truth about war. I hope that Unicorns, Almost will appeal to a wide range of people as well.’
For the first part of its run Unicorns, Almost will be presented as an audio play and art installation. For the second part it will be a live performance with Dan Krikler (whose performance was praised as ‘wonderful’ by Margaret Atwood) as Keith Douglas.
It presents the poet as a man who makes a Faustian pact with the war – it gives him his voice, accelerates his artistic development, allows him to achieve his dream of seeing his work accepted for publication and then takes his life.
And like some of Owen’s other work, it is as much about today as about World War II.
He said: ‘My career has paralleled the post 9/11 conflicts, and what strikes me is that while we say we’ll always remember, we quickly forget how terrible each war was. We go out and do it again and again. It feels like we are not learning very much.’
He hopes that writers and art can act as a counter to the anonymising force of conflict – and that this was one of Keith Douglas’ great capacities.
‘There was something very dramatic about him. It’s like he grabbed your head and made you look at the reality,’ said Owen.
First introduced to the work of Keith Douglas by his university tutor Andrew Motion, he wrote Unicorns, Almostin 2004. It premiered last year at the Hay Festival. This year the audio version was presented in Normandy as part of the 75thanniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings.
Keith Douglas’s work was championed by Ted Hughes and was an important influence on his own work. Hughes wrote the introduction to Douglas’s The Complete Poems, published by Faber.
Each person who goes to Unicorns, Almost will receive a letter press printed poem sheet set and printed by hand by Incline Press in Albertus type, designed by Berthold Wolpe (known for his book cover designs for Faber & Faber) and used in the 1930s by the Ministry of Information.
Unicorns, Almost takes place at Hepburn House Army Reserve Centre at East Claremont Street in the New Town (Venue 210).
The live performance takes place from 13-25 August. Before that it will be presented as an immersive audio experience from 2-11 August.
There is also an installation related to the playrunning throughout.
With direction by John Retallack, sound design byJon Nicholls, and lighting design by Ben Pickersgill, the set creates an immersive environment for a private audience with Douglas, speaking from beyond the grave. Keith Douglas was killed on 9 June 1944, three days after the Normandy Landings.
Audio Experience and installation: August 2-10 (not 5) at 1.15pm, 3.15 and 5.15pm. August 11 at 13:15
Live show and installation: August 13-25 (not 19) at 1.15pm.
Duration: 60 minutes, followed by installation
• Tickets are available at festival19.summerhall.co.uk/event/unicorns-almost