Arts Listings

At the Theater: TheatreFIRST Presents Bold ‘Serjeant Musgrave’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 08, 2007

“You brought in a different war.” 

“I brought it in to end it!” 

“You can’t cure the pox by further whoring!”  

Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, John Arden’s 1959 antiwar classic, abounds in piquant exchanges like this one that emphasize the complicity of all in war, when even those on the homefront are accessories.  

The mordant tale of a squad of soldiers on a recruiting mission, but one to demonstrate war’s horrors to a strike-torn town, fleshed out with song and dance by a cast of 13, has its long-overdue West Coast premiere, appropriately by TheatreFIRST in the Old Oakland Theatre. 

Arden’s play surfaced at a prime moment in postwar British drama. The well-wrought, three-act drama had just been challenged by the “Angry Young Men,” with their blue-collar “kitchen sink” realism (John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger had actually been decried by some for having an ironing board as focus of the set).  

The first of their plays were really just a different form of the traditional chamber play, with characters speaking to each other separated by “the fourth wall” from the audience. But Continental influences—Absurdism’s postsurrealist and Brecht’s political theaters, along with a little Strindbergianism—and an upsurge of native popular forms, like Music Hall (Osbourne’s The Entertainer featured Laurence Olivier as a run-down vaudeville comedian caught up in the news of the Suez Crisis), quickly paved the way for more openly theatrical pieces, taken directly to the spectator. 

Arden’s masterpiece has been talked about—and taught—here for over 40 years, though apparently never performed. In the ’60s, pieces like Brendan Behan’s plays and Oh! What a Lovely War (staged by Robert Adler at the Festival Theatre), which were originated by Arden’s co-pioneer in British Brechtian dramaturgy, Joan Littlewood, found their way to Bay Area venues. 

But it’s taken TheatreFIRST to stage this complex work, with its demanding vocal scape of British dialect, bringing in every register, as Sean O’Casey’s The Plough & The Stars did for Ireland. 

It’s an ensemble piece, by turns rough and strangely charming, with surprisingly disarming wit. Serjeant Musgrave, a military lifer on a mission as “a religious man,” brings his little army into a mining town, far from the foreign war in which they’ve been embroiled. 

In encounters with the upper class who control the burgh, known only by their titles: Mayor, Reverend (and Magistrate) and Chief of Police, and the ordinary folk (much takes place in a pub run by women)—as well as the striking miners, suspicious the soldiers have come out of the blue to bust their strike—Musgrave and his men argue, drink and sing with the locals, taking night visits from barmaids as well as vandals, before rivetting a crowd of citizens and gentry alike, and the crowd in their theater seats, with a patriotic display turned upside down, like a distress flag, in a raw attempt to “work out the logic” of violence and its pandemic guilt. 

It’s an ensemble play, and the cast, with Clive Chafer’s steady direction, engages each other and the audience with some fine performances (a few being the finest of the respective actors), including an excellent portrayal of haunted Annie, the barmaid impregnated and left by a soldier on his way to the wars (Emily Jordan). 

But the lead role—and performance--must be singled out. Chris Ayles, who has played many parts in the Bay Area, more than a few like his excellent salt-of-the earth Petey in Aurora’s production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party (a show contemporary with Serjeant Musgrave), here plays another diffident Everyman of sorts, but one driven by a strange inspiration, and a leader of disaffected men. 

It’s a tough part, in every sense of the word, and Ayles scores magnificently, truly leading the cast—and subject to it, as when Annie tries to take the mickey out of him with a bawdy song, and to sudden laughter from the audience the Serjeant deadpans a straight line: “What you’re saying, lassie, has some sort of truth.”  

“So ye are the gay recruiters!” Yet that “good strong girlie with a heart like a horse collar” remarks about the “bleedin’ lobsters” how soldiers remain soldiers ... or “What good’s a bloody soldier but to be dropped in a slit in the ground like a letter into a box?” 

The logic of war and a violent peace plays out in that “loamy language” that Clive Chafer singles out, descendent of the gushing lines of Elizabethan theater, of Thomas Hardy and his modernist heirs David Jones and Basil Bunting, who made sonatas and symphonies of the word music Hardy rhapsodized. And TheatreFIRST has just begun its journey into that hinterland Arden charted. A brave, bold show by Oakland’s sole resident company, stalwarts of our East Bay scene. 



Presented by TheatreFIRST at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through May 27. Old Oakland Theatre, 481 Ninth St., Oakland. $18-$25. 436-5085.