Into Battle – Online
Hugh Salmon unearths the true story of a bitter feud at Oxford’s Balliol College in 1910, a rivalry between socially aware boys and Etonians, the former passionately devoted to eliminating poverty in the backstreets just a stone’s throw from the university. The Into Battle feud is ferocious, fuelled by antagonistic power games that sour the classrooms with icy tension, whilst outside, political and social divisions burn harsh lines through England.
Act One is set shortly after Lloyd George’s People’s Budget has been rejected by the House of Lords, sparking rage through the country’s fabric: factory workers. 12-year-old Walter Perkins (Anna Bradley) is the audience’s window to this world, his father sacked for striking, and his jovial presence a pressing alarm bell to the justice-driven Keith Rae (Joe Gill). The opposing factions meet with raucous inhibition, hostile and fast-paced debates dressed in the prim-and-proper lingo of well-educated and astute scholars. There’s an air of Shakespeare, even in the depths of a dispute. By 1912, the feud becomes less about societal change than personal animosity, with Rae and Billy Grenfell (Nikolas Salmon), son to aristocrat Lady Desborough (Molly Gaisford), at loggerheads. The stoical yet courageous chaplain Talbot (Iain Fletcher) mediates, but the entitled Etonians, in the words of charming Ronnie (Sam Barrett), “Seem bred to believe that public school boys are superior to other English men, and that Etonians are superior to public school boys”. Act Two brings war, and a sudden reckoning with a harsher version of conflict, where bullets do not discriminate by class. During these horrendous years, the overgrown schoolboy layers are shed and the unresolved animosity between Keith and Billy is brought to tragic resolution when following a Rifle Brigade command in 1915.
The Balliol boys are audacious and bold-spirited, larger than life and often enraged, with a recklessness that stretches Talbot’s seams. Iain Fletcher is tremendous, his valiant kindness the thread that keeps his boys from self-destruction. Lady Desborough represents a slinky prize for a few hopefuls, but also the suffocating bind for her other son, Julian (Gabriel Freilich). He is vulgar, cynical and resentful of his mother’s convention, but his hard edges diminish once war begins, and he is the most impacted by its terrors.
The facts are researched to perfection, and, though some dialogue lacks subtlety, every man’s story is honoured. The cast enliven not just student life and the college predicament, but ambitions, both those encouraged within Balliol walls and those that challenge the limits of family expectations. What strikes most in this play is the prevalence of issues that, 100 years later, are in many ways unchanged. This is just one group of people among whom the social divide has manifested, and it sharpens the eye to inequality, regardless of how minute, in communities elsewhere.
The final scenes are set visually for war, but the soldiers lack tension and grit. Priority is given to reciting literature in their last moments, which, alongside artistic liberties, doesn’t exceed credible limits – they were scholars after all. War was the setting, and the eventual unfortunate pacifier, but the true tale lies in the poetry of the shared path of such ardent young men. Though they all reach ultimately tragic conclusions, there remains enough heart for the humble words, “It’s alright, but it’s not what one would have chosen.”
Into Battle is available to stream via Stream.Theatre from 1st November until 31st January 2022. For further information or to book visit the production’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: