Teddy Cutler reflects on the magic and madness of the First World War in a review of Square Rounds, now showing at Finborough Theatre, London.

Philippa Quinn plays chemist Fritz Haber, the scientist who weaponised chlorine gas during the First World War. Image: S R Taylor Photography

Throughout the second act of Square Rounds, Tony Harrison’s play that was first staged at the National Theatre in October 1992, the characters speak, and sometimes sing, a curious refrain.

‘Can you go on seeing the world in black and white?’ Clara Immerwahr (played emotively by Gracy Goldman) asks her husband, the great chemist and inventor of the modern fertilisation process Fritz Haber. It doubles as the central question asked of the audience at the tiny Finborough Theatre in West Brompton, here to see a production revived by director Jimmy Walters for the London stage for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Haber, as the discerning readers of this website and its magazine will no doubt know, turned his genius for invention to solving an intractable problem of the First World War: How to break the stalemate of trench warfare. He settled on chlorine gas – Walters’ direction has Haber, played with almost frightening intensity by Philippa Quinn as part of an all-female cast, imagining himself as a great humanitarian for ending the war.

That the chlorine only leads to more pointless pain and suffering is due to one of the bitterly ironic twists scattered throughout Harrison’s text. The poison killed more than 67,000 soldiers at the Second Battle of Ypres but it also required the use of masks to prevent it harming the Germans. Reluctant to give credit to a German Jew for another invention (Haber was Jewish), the Kaiser allowed chlorine gas to pass into the annals of bloody history – or so everyone thought. In one of the play’s most moving scenes, Haber falls to his knees and weeps as the structure that began the play as a latrine is transformed into a gas chamber.

Gracy Goldman plays Clara Immerwahr. Image: S R Taylor Photography

While Haber is portrayed as a magician whose ideas of a scientific utopia prove sadly misguided (Quinn wears a top hat that seems to double as a sorcerer’s – perhaps representing the ills wrought by the patriarchy – and pulls chlorine in green ribbons out of said hat), the Maxim brothers explode onto the stage midway through the first act all too literally.

Hudson, the inventor of smokeless gunpowder and played by Amy Marchant, spits Trumpian rhetoric from a secular pulpit as he exhorts the USA to defend itself from ‘lascivious foreigners’. Sir Hiram, the inventor of the first portable fully automatic machine gun, will later profit from the sufferers of poison gas with his Pipe of Peace, a bronchial inhaler. Harrison and Walters are overtly critiquing man’s ceaseless capacity for inventing carnage, but their play doubles as an oblique chastisement of capitalism – alarmingly relevant for 21st century economies like our own that profit in the billions from the sale of neat packages of explosive death.

Walters said that his production ‘addresses the ongoing conflict between the ideologies of Christianity and Islam’. It’s from here that the play gains its title. ‘Square rounds’ were devised in the early 18th century by James Puckle for his ‘Puckle Gun’, to cause maximum pain and damage to Muslim Turks. With such bloody subject matter this play could feel overwhelming – especially in the intimate setting. But Harrison’s use of verse and rhyming couplets introduces a musicality and, on several occasions, humour into the brutality – ensuring that the production coaxes instead of moralising.

Puckle’s gun and his square rounds were, thankfully, never used in combat. But a surprising and poignant end to the play, jumping back 1,000 years or more to medieval China, shows us that while the implements of warfare continue to develop, the broad sweep of history remains distressingly familiar. Man will always fight, the female cast chant, until he finds a way to ‘free the first dove from the fire’.

Square Rounds is showing at the Finborough Theatre, London, until 29 September 2018. Tickets can be purchased at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk.