This is a sand-blasted tragedy in khaki. The title is from Keith Douglas’ war poem Aristocrats, where the ‘Unicorns, almost’ are the officers who ride their tanks as if riding to hounds, and whose ‘famous unconcern’ allows them to see the North African desert as one enormous cricket ground. Douglas is twice chided by his commanding officer for being ‘out for a duck – again!’
Douglas was killed in action on June 9 1944, in Normandy, at the age of 24. In Unicorns, Almost (2018), Owen Sheers writes a life of this poet and soldier in ways that are both celebratory and mirthless. It’s hosted here in a military venue, the base of A Company, 6 SCOTS; I guess the Redford cavalry barracks are too distant. The stage space is covered by War Office tent canvas. There is sand, proper sandbags, and a black regimental beret.
Actor Dan Krikler is alone on stage throughout. With or without the signature tank beret, Krikler looks like the photographs of Douglas that line the entrance, and the stories he tells are (probably) straight out of Douglas’ memoir Alamein to Zem Zem. Sheers and director John Retallack mix it so that whilst there are the model soldiers of childhood at the beginning, the sorry and brief family history comes much later. In between are the desert war, rest and relaxation in Alexandria, tripwire, girlfriends, and the Normandy landings.
There is intermittent gunfire, the occasional swing number and the flicker of Pathé News, but the piece lives through Sheers’ script and Krikler’s voice. It’s reflective, sardonic, yet equable in tone. It enjoys, quite rightly, the qualities of Douglas’ verse: unsparing in its detail, anti-lyrical in effect, compassionate in its distance. The precision of the language, of its direct address and its image-making, is what distinguishes the poetry that you hear.
Douglas knew from experience that tank warfare was hot and noisy and lethal. He was also honest enough to recognise that it could also – in the moment – prove bold and exciting. Krikler moves fast until thought and recollection catch him, and there’s a half chuckle and wry comment; less fatalistic than implacable.
Douglas fought his war in a Crusader tank – lightly armed, thinly armoured, and mechanically unreliable. On stage, by contrast, his story is vigorous and charged. You will be given a copy of Douglas’ poem Simplify me when I’m dead just to underscore the point.