Interview: At All Costs, play by Peter Terry, men who are forced into killing other men on behalf of faceless politicians, set against the Battle of Delville Wood in the First World War

What: At All Costs
Writer/performer: Peter Terry
Director: Janice Honeyman
When: November 1-5, 2022
Where: Galloway Theatre, Waterfront, Theatre School, Corner Port & Alfred Roads
Cape Town, 8001
Tickets: R150 and R120 for students and seniors

Producers: Janice Honeyman and Peter Terry  

 “This play might be about the past, but it’s also about any men, usually young ones, who are forced into killing other men on behalf of faceless politicians far away in their nice comfy offices. That ain’t going away any time soon,” reflects veteran actor of stage and screen, Peter Terry, about his play At All Costs, directed by Janice Honeyman. The play, written by Terry, is set against the backdrop of the Battle of Delville Wood in Northern France, in 1916, during the First World War. Peter Terry lives in Johannesburg and is thrilled that the play is having its first season in Cape Town at The Galloway Theatre [November 2022]. At All Costs has been receiving raves reviews around South Africa,

About the Delville Wood Battle, the South African connection and Peter Terry’s play

The Battle of Delville Wood went on from July 14 to September 16, 2016. The Battle was fought against the German Empire by the British and French. The 1st South African Brigade of 3 150 men fought in the battle. They were attached to the 9th Scottish Division. Thousands were wounded and/or died. Exact numbers are not known. In Peter Terry’s play, the battle is told through David Wells, a fictional protagonist- part of the SA Brigade. He reflects on what occurred, the futility of war and the part he played in the battle. The play is set in 1970. The reason for the time frame, says Peter Terry is that he reckoned that if he was going to play somebody who fought at the Battle of Delville Wood, “the character would ideally be in his early 70s.” If the character “was 19 years old when the Battle of Dellville Wood took place, then he would be in his early 70s, in 1970.”

The genesis of At All Costs

What sparked you to write this play about the Battle of Deville Wood?

Peter Terry: It primarily came about because Janice Honeyman phoned me one day. She had seen me on Facebook saying that I had no work – and she said: “All right, you’ve got no work, write me a play and I’ll direct it for you, and we’ll put it on in my back garden,” and then she said, “You can do something about a First World War poet, or some classical music composer, or something like that, and we will take it from there.”

When I sent her my early draft – about Draft 2 or 3 – there was no guarantee that she would automatically agree to do it. If she’d hated it, she’d have been well within her rights to say she wasn’t keen on this particular play, and let’s look for something else. But there was enough in that draft for her to feel that she’d like to commit to a rehearsal process, and from there we worked closely together on shaping, cutting, adding, editing- a wonderful process. Essentially, Janice changed my script from a monologue into a play. Jan and I have known each other as friends and occasional colleagues for more than 50 year and there was a strong element of mutual trust during our rehearsal period. Janice is very much a co-creator of this piece, and we share any income that comes in from performances.

The cost to the men and their families of fighting a war

The human costs of war- is pivotal to this narrative?

Peter Terry: Yes, I got to thinking about it, because my grand passion through all these years, over half a century has indeed been the poetry of the First World War, as well as the First World War as a cataclysm of its own. Although I’m not a historical expert of any nature whatsoever, I certainly do know quite a lot about that war, particularly when it comes to the human toll – the cost to the men and their families of fighting a war that, in so many ways, seems to be nothing more or less than ridiculous. Two armies basically face each other over 100 yards or so of ground and fight each other from their trenches and just keep killing each other in thousands every day and what’s the point of all of it?

It’s always fascinated me that that human beings can find it necessary to use such methods as a way of solving problems that would far better be solved by negotiation, but somehow the human organism has, I suppose, been a warlike creature ever since the first primitive man picked up a stick and hit his neighbour over the head with it. I think we all have a constructive gene and a destructive gene in our nature. War will never go away, will it?

Survivor as witness

You personalised the war, with a fictional protagonist– David Wells?

Peter Terry: I soon got to the point where I realised that one looks at just one particular person and his experience in the First World War, and what it would be like to have been in that particular war. I thought, let me write a character who fought at the Battle of Delville Wood, because I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before. It’s so central to the very core of South Africa’s relatively recent history, and our military history, one of the great sacrifices that people of our generation still heard about at first hand, in many cases; or from our parents, whose own parents would have been there. So it’s still a memory that is very much alive.

Real and fictional and the setting in 1970

David Wells is a fictional character but he was inspired by real people?

David Wells is very much based on real people. Some of the things he says are almost verbatim quotes from things said by the men who were there. So there is that strong, and vital, element of truth in my character’s experiences in the play. And I thought, if I’m going to play somebody who fought at the Battle of Delville Wood, because I’m in my early 70s, well, he would have to be in his early 70s. So he would have been born in 1897, in order to have been 19 years old in 1916, when the Battle of Dellville Wood took place. And if you’re born in 1897, you will be in your early 70s in 1970, wouldn’t you? And that’s why the play is set in what appears to be the rather random year of 1970, but it soon becomes clear that the year is anything but random.

David – my fictional character – was one of the SA soldiers in the SA Infantry Brigade. He was in the 3rd Regiment, also known as the Transvaal Regiment because most of the men in that regiment were from the Transvaal and Rhodesia. They were led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Thackeray. I know Colonel Thackeray’s granddaughter and great nephew, which is why I chose to put David Wells into that regiment. Thackeray was a true war hero in every sense of the word.

In the play, he gives plenty of clues about the year being 1970, including saying, right on the first page: “The Delville Wood of today – 1970 – looks very different from the Wood I last saw in 1916”. He mentions a number of things happening in the world at that time. At one point, early on, he says:  “I was born in 1897, and I’m 73 now.”

The 2022 world at war through the lens of Delville Wood in 1916

Here we are in 2022, lots to reflect on the lessons that we can learn from this battle, as we sit in this mad world and this futile war in the Ukraine?

Peter Terry: I’m not sure what lessons we can learn from this battle, not in terms of geo-political issues and the fact that mankind is still blasting away at each other with ever more sophisticated weaponry in 2022. Mankind will never learn. But I had a beautiful moment a few days ago, after a performance for about 160 Grade 8 girls and boys who are studying the First World War. One of the young fellows had quite clearly joined the actor with my character in his perception of the play, and he came up to me and said, very quietly, “Sir, I just want to tell you that you are a very brave man.” I was deeply touched, and it made me ponder the notion that, when he studies the war and reads a cold fact like “There were 57,000 British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme”, he won’t just see an almost incomprehensible statistic, but he’ll remember the agony and fear and trauma of the young man I brought to life in my performance, and perhaps even multiply my young man by 57,000.

Imaging the past

Nowadays, everything is imaged on TV and social media – such as the bombardment of Ukraine by Russia – but in 1916 – that wasn’t the situation. Through theatre, we can engage with the past and reflect on what it means to us now in 2022?

Peter Terry: Indeed. Unquestionably, the poetry of the Great War is still as fresh and as devastatingly shocking as it was 100 or so years ago. As you and I both know, the theatre brings an immediacy, a vulnerability, a life to the work being presented that no news bulletin can, as we sit in our lounges watching something uncomfortably like a video game. This play might be about the past, but it’s also about any men, usually young ones, who are forced into killing other men on behalf of faceless politicians far away in their nice comfy offices. That ain’t going away any time soon.

One hander – with voice over

At All Costs is a one hander? There is a voice over character?

Peter Terry: Yes, a one-hander. There’s a short introduction, a voice-over by Jenny Wells – the daughter of David Wells [voiced by Jenny Terry – daughter of Peter Terry]. The play is set in a community hall and the voice introduces my character to the people in the audience, but in venues without the required sound system I do that introduction myself. It works pretty well either way. The announcer voice-over will be played on the sound system in Cape Town.  Jenny Wells is very much an ‘invisible’ presence, sitting at the back of the hall- a community hall- any hall- any community. In my mind, David Wells probably lives in Parkview [Johannesburg] and he is talking in the local church hall, or similar venue.

Memory play and tribute

It is estimated that around 29,000 men served with the South African Forces in the South African Infantry Brigade during World War I. Around 10,000 died. They are named in a book, at the Delville Wood Museum, next to the memorial. Anything else to add about the battle and the play?

Peter Terry:  Lots. I could talk for hours about the play, the war, the search for truth that goes beyond mere facts -one of the themes of the play- but I think it important to mention that I have dedicated this play and production to the memory of the South African soldiers who fought in the Battle of Delville Wood. Everywhere I have played it, I have had at least a couple of people come to me afterwards to tell me of their own family members who were at the Battle. This truly is an iconic battle that is deeply ingrained in the mythology of this country. When you get this kind of message, you feel you must be doing something of value:

“What a MAGNIFICENT play, so profoundly sad, so moving, so filled with the deep feeling, respect, and love you carry for those men. I cannot find words to say how lucky we were, one and all, to be in that room with you tonight. I felt your soldiers there with us too.”

The theatre of war: Peter Terry in the play, he has written, set against the backdrop of the Battle of Delville Wood in the First World War. Pic: Philip Kuhn, Sandton Theatre on the Square.
At All Costs: Peter Terry in the play, he has written, set against the backdrop of the Battle of Delville Wood in the First World War. Pic: Philip Kuhn, Sandton Theatre on the Square.

✳ This interview has been marginally edited for length and clarity. Featured mage by Philip Kuhn, Sandton Theatre on the Square, Johannesburg. Supplied.