Happy Warriors

James Macdonald’s new play staged at the Upstairs of the The Gatehouse is inspired by the Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill’s Second Wolrd War mission to Yugoslavia in the autumn of 1944. The venue is the charming 16th century Highgate village pub just under two and a half miles away from Waugh’s family home on 145 North End Road. The scene is the farmhouse in Topusko where their stormy friendship escalates to a comical antagonism fueled by the angry local cook, Zora Panic. The script followes closely the well documented wartime espisode with the name of Fitzroy Maclean who was the head of the mission dropped more then once during the two acts. Details such as Waugh’s “camel-hair dressing gown”, the £50 Bible reading bet and the box of Havana cigars sent from London seem to have been borrowed from the Earl of Birkenhead’s memoir “Fiery Articles” in “Evelyn Waugh and His World” (1973: 137). The pattern of the play is a circle of a dialogue with the two main heroes going back to where they started unable to escape the hillarious agony of cohabitaning in Tito partisans’ controlled area of Croatia.

Simon Pontin as Randolph and Martha Dancy as Zora managed to provoke laughter in the audience of around 30 people and a smile of approval from the playwright who attended the Preview night. The mantle of being Waugh falls upon the shoulders of Neil Chinneck, a young London actor, who attempts to blend wit and satire into the characher by threatening to kill Randolph and himself. He achives a decent presentation of Waugh at war although it is somewhat dry in expression and wiry in appearnce.

The German bombardment effects work well together with the the décor of the bare village room and Winson Churchill’s portarit on the wall. The choice of Vera Lynn’s songs as a musical background adds to the vitality of the performance. But it is the total lack of pretence that seems to be the main merit of the play.

At Campion Hall in Oxford

At Campion Hall in Oxford

In March this year I visited Camion Hall: Jesuits in Oxford on Brewer Street in Oxford to see the place with which Evelyn Waugh’s name is so closely associated. The Secretary, Sarah Grey, arranged an appointment for me with Professor Peter Davidson who is the Senior Research Fellow and Archivist at the Hall. Davidson explained that the accounts of Waugh at the Hall are minimal, but there are three Waugh things on permanent display.

The first one is an Abyssinian religious painting of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, which hangs centrally in the hallway of the first floor. The body paint is preserved behind a glass displayed in natural light with a beautiful blue color dominating the imagery which also has a Coptic inscription on the top. Waugh presumably brought it from his travels in Abyssinia in the 1930s and gave it as a gift to the Hall’s Collection.

The second object is a Campion’s illegally printed book, which Davidson explained, Waugh must have bought on the book market in the 1930s before donating it to the Hall. It was rebound in red leather with delicate gold and is one of the five known copies of Rationes Decem (1587). The pocket size book is displayed in a glass cabinet covered with cloth together with other memorabilia including a relic silver box believed to have belonged to Campion containing traces of his blood.

Finally our small group of three reached the Chapel designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with the Stations of the Cross on the walls leading to the Lady Chapel decorated by Charles Mahoney’s (1903-1968) mural commissioned by Waugh. The gentle seasonal representation of the Lady is full with garden flowers creating a natural English botanical landscape feel. Waugh knew Mahoney who worked over ten years on the mural and almost finished it except for one wall sketch in graphite. Davidson told me that the Chapel would have been almost the same during Waugh’s time. The mural is washed every five years with distilled water. As we were leaving the immaculate Chapel with an air of absolute order and stillness, we chatted a little bit about Waugh’s friendship with Father D’Arcy who was Master of the Hall (1933 – 1945) and a very important figure for English Catholicism.

At the end of my twenty five minutes visit, I glanced through the windows towards the simple geometrical garden of the Hall and took the leaflet from the table. On the back of it there was a description of the Campion Hall Collection: “Many of the works of fine and applied art in the collection were gifts from the circles of writers, artists and patrons who visited, and were inspired by, Campion Hall and its ethos, most notably Evelyn Waugh.”