For most of us, there are few images which bring home the full horror of global conflict more graphically than the trench warfare which dominated the First World War.
But for me, there is a moment in this exceptional Theatre in the Quarter revised production of Helen Newall’s acclaimed play Silent Night which is far more chilling and it takes place on a lovely summer’s day in 1914 as Alice and Walter prepare to go boating on the River Dee at The Groves in Chester.
Some anonymous archduke has just been assassinated in Sarajevo and there is talk of war but Walter, an officer in the Cheshire Regiment, dismisses such rumours and says they will blow over.
Then they encounter Alice’s younger brother Joe who is bored to tears working in a Chester office. That chilling moment comes when he talks animatedly about wanting to join the armed forces and see some action - he expresses this desire with the kind of boyish excitement most young people these days would show for a day out at a theme park.
The audience knows what lies in store for all three of these ordinary Cestrians and it comes as such a shock to realise that 100 years ago, there were so many young men like Joe, believing that war was a welcome escape from a humdrum existence.
Almost as devastating is the account of the first major battle of WW1 at Mons seen through the eyes of three Cheshire Regiment soldiers who pretty much stumble on to a vantage point above the field of conflict. They describe their immense pride at seeing the mighty British cavalry in all its impressive finery, ready to take on the Hun, and wonder how the enemy could ever stand a chance against them. Then the Germans open up with machine gun fire and things are never the same again.
Later on, we do experience the terror, squalor and sheer boredom of life in the trenches and the extraordinary aspect of this production is all of this is evoked by director Emma Lucia with the use of four actors on a sparse stage overlooked by a circular screen.
The superb company - Aled Bidder, Hannah Good, Rhys Isaac-Jones and Tom Lincoln - play multiple roles while frequently returning to the central trio of Alice, Walter and Joe but the combined skills of their performances and Lucia’s direction ensures we are always clear about who is who and where we are.
And the now legendary moment at Christmas 1914 when both sides declared a truce and British and German soldiers met as comrades in No Man’s Land is successfully recreated with the use of three actors, a football and a sack of ‘goodies’ like bully beef!
As you would expect of a Theatre in the Quarter production, all of this is played out to a ‘soundtrack’ of songs and carols put together by the company’s always inspired musical director Matt Baker and performed by the main cast and an off-stage chorus of singers dressed in period costume
In the end, Newall’s play gets to the very heart of the First World War because we see it through the eyes of people we quickly come to know and care about. The language, while occasionally poetic, is simple and straight forward and this leads directly to another of its strengths.
Even a century later, many are confused as to how the killing of one archduke could lead to ‘the war to end all wars’. You won’t be after seeing Silent Night - it contains a brilliantly clear and concise account of how two shots ringing out in Sarajevo could result in the deaths of up to 15 million people in four years.
Silent Night is touring the region until December 7. Visit www.theatreinthequarter.co.uk for details.