Were Falstaff to wander into the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn over the next couple of weeks, he'd feel right at home. For in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of a new play, Days of Significance, there's drinking, cussing, jokes about bodily fluids, vile curses, and martial strutting. There are, however, none of the fine tricksy words of the aristocrats with whom Shakespeare forces Falstaff to deal – no fancy lords trying to trap him into battle.
Instead there are the young lads of 21st-century Britain, with few prospects and little to hope for but a rough form of male bonding and a drunken heterosexual shag on a Saturday night. Their female compatriots are, generally, not reluctant to oblige.
Just as in Falstaff's taverns of early modern London, the manners are rough. Wooing on the distaff side is as likely to be conducted by a slap around the chops and a twist of the balls as by pretty words, on the spear side by a vomit-splattered, staggering speech – "yeah," "err," "whatever".
But the fundamental subject is Iraq, and the "heroes" are the achingly young, ill-educated, lost-before-they-land lads who wind up today in the British army ranks, the "heroines" their lasses, as foul-mouthed and drunken, if far more verbally and emotionally literate. (The Daily Mail's Quentin Letts called it "treasonous", which has to be a pretty high recommendation.)
The play is billed as a response to Much Ado About Nothing, but the relationship is distant; the feel is much more that of a History play, one of those in which Shakespeare skated close to political sensitivities. Which isn't to say this isn't a very, very funny play – prepare for belly laughs, often closely followed by gasps of horror.
It is in the wedding scene, that Shakespearean staple, that, while there are no boys dressed as girls dressed as boys, the kinship feels closest. Here the tension is deadly serious, arising from the return of Jamie (Ashley Rolfe) from the war not as a hero but as a man facing war crimes charges. Hannah (Claire Louise-Cordwell), the bright one of the gang, the one on the route to escape to middle-class success, has to decide whether to stand by her man in court. And there's a grieving girlfriend, and the smart-arse man who stayed at home and mocked…
But the play doesn't just stay at home, venturing in its mid-section into the streets of contested Basra. The director, Maria Aberg, does a fine job of putting the feel of the Iraq war, the claustrophobia of house-to-house urban warfare, into the small Tricycle stage. And if the swirling energy sometimes overwhelms individual words and lines, well that scarcely matters in the context. The cast, as you'd expect from the RSC, are an excellent ensemble, in sharp and controlled form.
Roy Williams' script is lightning fast, and you can feel that he loves his characters even if he often doesn't like them, feelings audience members are likely to share. If there's one aspect that grates, it is an odd, much-highlighted succession of references to angels, a theme that just fails to gel.
The ongoing Iraq war is a subject sure to be revisited again and again in coming years, and the definitive "play of the war" has yet to be written. Days of Significance isn't it – but it is an honourable member of the cast.
The production continues at the Tricycle Theatre until March 29.