You are currently viewing the transitionary archive pages. Please be patient while we transfer this information into our new website format.

Back to Archive 2004
Trevor Cooper and Graham Bowe in Soldiers

by Rolf Hochhuth
Translated by Robert David Macdonald
Directed by John Terry
Designed by Alex Marker
Lighting by John terry
Presented byShapeshifter in association with Concordance

The Cast
Wing Commander Dorland - Richard Sandells
Captain Bohdan Kocjan and Group Captain Clark - Scott Brooksbank
2nd Officer Helen McDonald - Rebecca Peyton
General Alan Brooke - John Gorick
Winston Churchill - Trevor Cooper
Lord Cherwell -Stephen Kemble
General Wladyslaw Sikorski and George Bell, Bishop of Chichester - Graham Bowe

27 July - 21 August 2004


The First London Revival for 40 Years of Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial World War Two drama, opening on the 61st Anniversary of “Operation Gomorrah” - The Firestorm Raid on Hamburg

“Churchill is the element itself, the personification of the war-drive, the bloodstream of the century, in which more human beings have been done to violent death than ever before in world history.”

From the controversial pen of German playwright Rolf Hochhuth (author of The Representative), Soldiers is a startling and vitally contemporary example of documentary theatre at its best and most dramatic. Soldiers delves into the shady and hotly contested history of Winston Churchill’s role in the Second World War, and of the Allied bombing of German cities. This is the story of the Englishmen who, in setting Germany alight, helped to shape the forms of aerial warfare that continue to govern the international stage, and who first came to understand the consequences in both morale and morals. This production has been commissioned from Shapeshifter by Finborough Theatre Artistic Director, Neil McPherson.

Originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain and rejected by the National Theatre Board, this extraordinary play, which divided both historians and critics, receives its first London revival since its 1968 production. The original production received numerous security threats, and the producers had to employ security guards to instigate full searches of the theatre.

“One of the most extraordinary things that has happened to British theatre in my lifetime. For once the theatre will occupy its true place – at the very heart of public life” Kenneth Tynan on Soldiers.
“Full-bloodedly theatrical . . . A genuine sense of outrage.’’ Irving Wardle, The Times
“Those who tried to ban the play, those who wish to see it banned are utterly mistaken. . . The argument is passionate and fierce. The language is magnificently Churchillian and totalling enthralling.” David Nathan, The Sun
“An evening to savour and an evening to wonder about.” Clive Barnes, New York Times

One of the UK’s most exciting young directors, John Terry’s work has been seen recently at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, and at the BAC. His recent production of Unsent Letters at the Orange Tree won great critical acclaim: "An evening to treasure" What's On. “A finely conceived production" Time Out. The play is translated by the late Robert David MacDonald, best known for his work at the Glasgow Citizens, who died earlier this year.

Trevor Cooper plays Churchill. His most recent stage credits include Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, King John (all for the RSC) and The Iceman Cometh (Almeida). Film credits include Gangs of New York, Vanity Fair and The Emperor’s New Clothes. Recent TV credits include Captain Wills in Longitude (C4) and Otto Fischer in Eroica (BBC).


TIME OUT CRITICS' CHOICE - Our third “Time Out” Critics Choice in a row!

" Skilfully directed by John Terry" The Times

"Trevor Cooper is superb as Churchill, Stephen Kemble persuasively creepy as Cherwell, the scientific adviser pressing for the bombing campaign, and Graham Bowe by turns sympathetic as Sikorski and bombastic as the Bishop George Bell."
Mike Parker, Morning Star

"John Terry’s admirable revival . . . As the British Prime Minister, a gentle and fierce Cooper depicts an historic icon without resort to cliche . . .This is concentrated theatre and highly recommended."
John Nathan, Jewish Chronicle.

"Kenneth Tynan’s original 1968 production of Soldiers about the British blanket bombing of German cities during the Second World War caused such outrage that it is surprising to discover in this first ever UK revival just how reasonable and well balanced the play actually is. . . There are chilling moments early on as Stephen Kemble’s Lord Cherwell nonchalantly munches an apple while explaining to colleagues the mechanics and consequences of firestorm bombing in horrific detail. But the real drama comes in Act III, in the garden at Chequers, when Graham Bowes tenacious Bishop of Chichester insists that Churchill, played by Trevor Cooper, defend his moral position. This is undoubtedly Coopers finest hour as a prime minister bombastic, desperate and weighed down with responsibility. . . this thoughtfully directed play, with its obvious relevance to the Iraq Shock and Awe campaign, remains more than a period piece and . . . makes for a gripping, stimulating evening."
Colin Shearman, The Stage

"Terry’s production is lucid and. . . well acted, in particular by Trevor Cooper as a Churchill more troubled by his conscience than he admits, and Stephen Kemble, whose Lord Cherwell coolly pares and eats an apple as he proposes mass slaughter. And there’s no denying the force of the plays resonances. At what cost do we depose a tyrant? Can the Prime Minister trust intelligence from his secret service? Is murder excusable when the killer wears a uniform? Not the sort of questions to provoke a scandal these days, but ones that remain unarguably relevant."
Sam Marlowe, The Times

“Who needs farce? We've got politics. West End rediscovers radicalism as polemics tackle world's big issues . . . Just as controversial is the revival of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, Soldiers, about Winston Churchill and the Allied bombing of German civilians during the Second World War, staged at the Finborough theatre pub for the first time since the Sixties."
Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer

"It has not been revived in this country until now. A few years ago, a play like “Soldiers”, which is about the ethics of RAF Bomber Command and Churchill’s covert dealings with Stalin, might have seemed irredeemably dated. But today, unfortunately, the play has become newly relevant to a world at war. In particular, there is no doubting the conviction and power of Hochhuth’s condemnation of the bombing of Hamburg on 27 July 1943. The firestorm, courtesy of the British, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Too late to save them, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (Graham Bowe), confronts Churchill and his staff with the iniquitous consequences of their actions. His voice of reason and his photographs of charred corpses leave them clinging to their military justifications, and end with Churchill himself, according to Trevor Coopers powerful performance (and convincing impersonation), in tears. . . Hochhuth makes Churchill the centre of the drama, and he inevitably becomes a sympathetic and tortured character, both warmonger and victim of war. . .the director, John Terry, has concocted some chilling moments, not to mention some atmospheric lighting and sound, and this revival at the Finborough Theatre is well worth catching"
Michael Caines, Church Times

"With the Iraq war causing us to examine once again the ethics of treating civilians as collateral damage, this is a timely moment for the first revival in nearly 40 years of “Soldiers”, Rolf Hochhuth's contentious 1967 play about Churchill and the policy of fire-bombing German cities. . . John Terry’s clear, committed production gives the play the fair hearing it deserves. It emphatically scotches the notion that the play is a vicious libel on a deceased national hero. . . “Soldiers” thrives on the tension between Hochhuth’s empathetic understanding of why people resorted to desperate measures in the war against Hitler and his passionate conviction that area bombing, uncondemned by any court, opened a grotesque new chapter in the history of inhumanity. Trevor Cooper is splendid as Churchill, by turns a fierce bulldog, a petulant baby, a witty old ham and - at unforgettable moments - a man with a terribly lonely and troubled sense of his own historic destiny. . .In a fine and pointed piece of doubling, Graham Bowe, the actor playing Sikorski, reappears as another thorn in Churchill’s side: George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, who engages the Prime Minister in the fiery climactic argument about the ethics of the fire-bombing campaign."
Paul Taylor, The Independent

"High explosive play about Churchill and total war gets a timely, accomplished revival.. . . The crunch debate comes between Churchill and Bishop Bell, a non pacifist who believes civilians should not be targets. The role is finely played by Graham Bowe, significantly doubled as Sikorski, Churchill’s opposite in the other plot element. . . Opposite Bell is Trevor Coopers effectively grumbling, self certain Churchill, large in personality as physicality and supported by his military men and the architect of saturation bombing, Lord Cherwell (Stephen Kemble with a sinister mix of silky public school politeness and cold determination to win at any price). Rebecca Peyton shows the pain when belief in her chief clashes with the death of her Polish lover’s boss. . . John Terry’s production makes the plays points clearly and Alex Marker contrives an amazingly atmospheric sense of Churchill commanding from his bunker bed and London’s wartime operations room."
Timothy Ramsden, Reviewsgate

"Dramatic dynamite . . .In London’s highly politicised theatrical climate, John Terry’s mature, thought provoking production . . . this intelligent and ambitious play ignites fierce debate over the ethics of the British bombing of civilians in Hamburg . . . Terry’s skilful handling of the tiny Finborough space allows the political action to go convincingly from Scapa Flow to Downing Street to Chequers. Carefully calculated use of music by Beethoven and Schubert adds to the emotional depth . . . that never fails to skewer the paradoxical aims of a supposedly just war. . . Trevor Cooper’s Winston Churchill delivers the requisite colourful chutzpah, while Scott Brooksbank’s amorous yet politically forthright Captain Kocjan proves a dynamic opponent to the British governments moral fragmentation. Graham Bowe also performs provocatively, first as the doomed Polish Prime Minister, and secondly as an irate Bishop of Chichester. . . This is hot for the right reasons."
Rachel Halliburton, Time Out

"You have to salute the bravery of Finborough supremo Neil McPherson for giving this difficult play its first London revival since the 1960s . . . A superb central performance by Trevor Cooper "
Aleks Sierz, What’s On in London

"Rolf Hochhuth’s “Soldiers” caused an almighty stink back in 1967: disruptive rows at the National Theatre, fierce debates on television, a ban by the Lord Chamberlain leading to a delayed West End production. Seeing it again now makes one almost nostalgic for an era when political theatre could make front-page news. . . Surprisingly, the issue that generated such heat in 1967: Churchill’s alleged involvement in a plot to kill the Polish leader, General Sikorski now seems irrelevant to the plays main theme: the morality of saturation bombing. Set in 1943, “Soldiers” builds to a tremendous climax in which the Bishop of Chichester confronts Churchill with passionate arguments against the firebombing of German cities. . . This is good theatre precisely because it offers genuine dialectical debate. It also has an obvious relevance to today . . . the play possesses the tangible excitement that stems from the airing of public issues. . . it is more than decently acted. As Churchill, Trevor Cooper give us a figure whose growling dogmatism is accompanied by a sense of monumental solitude. And there is good support from Stephen Kemble as a silkily sinister Cherwell and Graham Bowe as the impassioned bishop. This may be British history seen from a German perspective, but, in an age when military leaders euphemistically talk of collateral damage, its climactic debate remains as potent as ever."
Michael Billington, The Guardian

"The deft handling of a clear-cut political issue, dealt with in such a blatantly confrontational manner, is terrifically gripping and makes for great theatre. This Churchill is so adroitly and assuredly portrayed it is a real joy to watch. Not necessarily having any antiwar connotations, Soldiers more unusually asks questions about the conduct of war, rather than the legitimacy of the war itself. For this reason, it is one of the better recent war plays."
Tom Ogg, Culture Wars

“Soldiers is well worth reviving, especially in this fluid and beautifully acted production by John Terry . . . Dominated by Trevor Cooper’s Churchill, magisterial but buoyant . . . Soldiers is much better written than current political plays"
Rhoda Koenig, Evening Standard

"Fine performances from a strong cast include Trevor Cooper as the outwardly bluff Churchill with a secret inner world, Stephen Kemble as the chilling Lord Cherwell, and Scott Brooksbank who plays Kocjan as well as Group Captain Clark, Chief of Bomber Command."
Julia Hickman, Theatreworld Internet Magazine

" With its focus on the ethics of carpet bombing and featuring a far from flattering depiction of Churchill, Soldiers riled the 1960s Establishment. Now it’s in London again and just as relevant.
Theatrical scandals never die, they just moulder on the shelf labelled unread plays. Because theatre is a live art, the best way to consign a play to the dustbin of history is to leave it unperformed after its initial run. This is what happened to Soldiers, Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial 1968 play about Winston Churchill and the Allied bombing of German civilians during the Second World War.
Now the Finborough, a theatre pub, revives the play for the first time in London since its original run. And it opens on 27 July, the exact anniversary of the 1943 firestorm raid on Hamburg that killed 50,000 people. And while Soldiers is a classic Sixties cause, with libertarian radicals squaring up to crotchety conservatives, it also has contemporary resonance because it questions the morality of bombing civilians.
The story of the scandal begins, oddly, with a disgruntled theatre critic. When the legendary penman Kenneth Tynan accepted an offer from Laurence Olivier, the National Theatres artistic director, to become its first dramaturg in 1963, he soon found that not only were provocative new plays rather scarce, but that the Nationals deadly rival, the RSC, was scooping them up. In 1964, Peter Brook caused controversy at the RSC with the Marat Sade and, two years later, with IUSI, which suggested that the London suburb of Hampstead should be napalmed to teach Brits about the evils of the Vietnam War.
Tynan was desperate to find similarly controversial material. Then, one day in July 1966, he was shown Hochhuth’s Soldiers. He realised at once that this was the kind of play that can help theatre to fulfil its role as a public forum. Not only did it scrutinise the morality of Churchill’s policy of carpet bombing German cities in the war against Hitler, but it also accused him of complicity in the death of General Sikorski, head of the Polish government in exile who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1943. Churchill’s motive, Hochhuth argued, was that he wanted to keep on the good side of Stalin, which meant breaking his guarantee to the Poles that their country would be free of Soviet influence after the war. While alive, Sikorski was a reminder of this broken promise and of Churchill’s acceptance of Stalin’s lie that the Soviets were innocent of massacring thousands of Polish officers in Katyn Woods in 1940. (Stalin blamed Hitler.)
Tynan, a romantic lefty, was thrilled with Soldiers. The pomp of Churchill’s state funeral in January 1965 was still in the public mind, and here was a chance to attack a national hero who symbolised the Empire and conservatism. Tynan’s memo to Olivier read: I don’t know whether this is a great play, but I think its one of the most extraordinary things that has happened to British theatre in my lifetime.
There was only one problem was the Sikorski subplot true? Hochhuth claimed that he had sworn statements from secret informers witnessed by eminent academics. Trouble was, these were in a Swiss bank vault and couldn’t be opened for 50 years. And the only historian who supported Hochhuth was David Irving, an admirer of Hitler and a Holocaust denier.
Tynan hoped he could convince the Nationals board to put on the play, but expected stinkbombs to fly. As the board meeting approached, Olivier got cold feet and his wife, the actress Joan Plowright, had to steady his nerves. Olivier decided he didnt like the bloody play but feared being despised by his wife if he appeared to be frightened of doing new stuff.
On 24 April 1967, the board met. Its chairman, Oliver Lyttelton (Lord Chandos), was a former member of Churchills war cabinet and thought Soldiers a grotesque and grievous libel. In support of Soldiers, Olivier read out an extract from Aristotle’s Poetics which said that the artists function is to describe not the thing that happened, but a kind of thing that might happen. The board was unimpressed and unanimously turned down the play, deeming it unsuitable. Olivier went public, deploring its decision.
Defeated at the National, Tynan decided to put on the play himself, but soon ran into another problem. The censorship laws forbade the granting of licences to plays that portrayed living people and Soldiers featured Sir Arthur Bomber Harris, head of wartime Bomber Command, in an unflattering light. Harris objected to the play, and although Tynan railed against the archaic Lord Chamberlain, there was nothing he could do. Still, the heat of his fury fuelled the campaign to abolish censorship. Eventually, after censorship was scrapped in 1968, Tynan put on his own production of Soldiers at the West End New Theatre in December 1968, although the play had by now had its world premiere in Berlin. Its British opening night was greeted with cheers and Tynan hailed the essential sanity of English audiences. But his onetime rival, the critic Harold Hobson, whose daughter was married to Chandos’s son, soon put the knife in, and other reviews were respectful, but not ecstatic.
Worst of all, Sikorski’s pilot, Edward Prchal, sole survivor of the plane crash, decided to sue Hochhuth for defamation because the play which closed after a mere three-month run suggested that he was in league with the British secret services, who’d allegedly bumped off Sikorski. In 1972, Tynan lost the case, which cost him 20,000 pounds. But Soldiers not only hurt him financially, it also cost him his job he left the National in 1969.P
In style, Soldiers mixes fly on the wall docudrama with imaginative peeks at its characters private lives. The Swiss born German playwright Hochhuth had previously written The Representative (1963), which pioneered a documentary style to accuse Pope Pius XII of failing to challenge the Nazi Holocaust. But, in Soldiers, as Tynan’s widow, Kathleen, conceded, none of its accusations of foul play stand up in the light of hindsight. Tynan himself had doubts and used the Voltairean defence of disliking what a man says but defending to the death his right to say it. Neil McPherson, the 34yearold artistic director of the Finborough, agrees: If this was a play that just slagged off Churchill, I wouldn’t do it. It stages a big debate between Churchill and the bishop of Chichester about the ethics of area bombing, a huge moral question which doesn’t have a simple answer. So I hope there will be screaming arguments in the pub after the show. McPherson reckons that George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, would probably have been made archbishop of Canterbury if he hadn’t opposed the bombing. Most of British society in the 1960’s had immense reverence for Churchill: McPherson quotes from a card the leader’s own daughter sent him saying that she owed him freedom itself as all English people do.
Somebody once claimed that the Finborough only does plays about genocide, war and disease which I take as a compliment, says McPherson. I’m currently devising a play about Brompton Cemetery, which is near the theatre. It was used to bury a lot of bomber command crew who had made it home, but didn’t survive. Finding out about them prompted me to read Soldiers.
The play’s director, 25 year old John Terry, adds, It’s an enormous play, a huge piece of research, with 25 pages of stage directions before each act, plus a huge prologue and epilogue. Obviously we can’t put all that on stage, but for me the primary theme is about political power and the morality bombing and that comes across. What about the Sikorski subplot? We have a right as artists to show things for which there might not be full historical evidence. Most history plays, from Schiller’s Mary Stuart onwards, not to mention Shakespeare, have been elaborations on the truth. For Terry, the play is interesting not because of its scandalous past, but because it presents the victors history. The single, most comprehensive account of the Second World War is still Churchill’s.
But although you can draw contemporary resonances from it, it’s not really about today. It’s mainly about the unprecedented bombing of Hamburg, about which I knew almost nothing although I had heard about Dresden, Cologne and Coventry. I’ve also talked to some German people of my generation and they’d never heard of it either, so I was attracted to the play because it seemed to be about hidden history a forgotten episode, off-limits. Is the play still relevant? Oh yes, says McPherson. You just have to look at the American Shock and Awe attacks on Baghdad. But, even if he’s right and war remains much the same as it did half a century ago, British culture doesn’t. With the National currently preparing Stuff Happens, David Hare’s play about the US administrations obsession with Saddam Hussein, the days when theatre was unwilling to criticise governments and its allies are over."
Aleks Sierz, The Independent