A brilliant play offers a fascinating picture of Britain during the Second World War. Aleks Sierz reports
Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall was first staged in 1958, and then immortalised two years later in a film version starring Richard Todd and Laurence Harvey.
Set in Malaya in 1942, when Japanese invaders threatened the outer reaches of the empire, the play focuses on a lost jungle patrol of British soldiers who have captured an enemy scout. In the end, they solve their dilemma of what to do with him by killing him.
Director Josie Rourke says: "When I first read this play I was absolutely bowled over by its brilliance. It's an ambitious character-led play, which unfolds in real time. Drawing partly on his own National Service experience, Willis Hall created this fascinating picture of Britain, with characters coming from every part of the country."
Hall's original play was censored by the Lord Chamberlain in the late 1950s. "He removed all the sexual swearing, but left in all the casual racism," says Rourke. "We've put back the lines that he censored, and left the racism."
She argues that it is important to examine the three kinds of racism in the piece. "First, there's the internal British racism, with its jokes about the Scots and the Welsh; second, there's its paranoia about black men sleeping with the soldiers' women while they're away; and finally there's its view of the Japanese enemy. Because the soldiers don't bayonet their prisoner immediately, he goes from being objectified as an 'other' to being humanised when they get to know him. This shows how one of the things that racism does is prevent you from having to deal with people on human terms."
Rourke sees similarities between Mitchem, the commander, and Bamforth, the rebel figure: "Both of them have an ability to question the fiction of authority, and to see the ridiculousness of their situation.
Mitchem is like a teacher who discovers some of his doubts, and wobbles."
Both men struggle with "putting their principles into practice". In the context of the Iraq war, the play has a new relevance. "These boys have never killed anyone," says Rourke. "They are fresh recruits."
Young audiences will love the play's danger as well as its humour. "It shows how young men behave when they are in a group: it's about boys trying to define themselves in a very frightening place."