Three soldiers awarded Victoria Crosses for their bravery at the Battle of Rorke's Drift meet up at a ceremony twenty years later. The action at Rorke's Drift is sketched in via its dramatic recreation in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which is wowing late nineteenth century audiences at Earls Court in London.
However, most of the play is given up to discussions between the veterans and the landlord and barmaid of the pub in which they meet. The landlord is hostile towards the former redcoats, articulating the idea that soldiers are simply pawns in the capitalistic or imperialist plot - but his real animus is quickly revealed to be his own loss of a brother at an earlier, and perhaps more significant, engagement with the Zulu forces.
Soldier William Jones then becomes the mouthpiece for a series of revisionist attitudes to the war, including a respectful reappraisal of the Zulu enemy's motivations and cultural practices. All three veterans are suffering from what today we'd call post traumatic stress disorder. There are a couple of overt references to the most famous British military cock-up of the century, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the characters also speculate that Rorke's Drift was spun as a victory to divert attention from the generally poor conduct of the war.
The ordinary soldier's view of this campaign may well have aligned with the story told here, and the characters in the play are indeed based on real people. But the language they use to describe their attitudes feels much too like the language of the twenty-first century, rather than the nineteenth. It's not the vocabulary so much as the construction of their discourse: no one says he's got "issues", for example, but the rhythm of the conversation, and the characters' lack of circumspection, seem utterly wrong for the period. They seem to be informed by a kind of casual acquaintance with psychology, mass media and human rights theory that they couldn't possibly have had.
Every generation uses history to comment on its own period: indeed, history is a form of storytelling, and it therefore tells us as much (and often more) about its authors as its protagonists. We're doubtless meant to find parallels with the conflicts of our own times. But patterns of battle experience repeat up and down the historical timeline: Rorke's Drift may resonate with the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, and with the current British experience in Afghanistan - but it also echoes every confused or compromised engagement that's ever occured. The ordinary soldier has always been expendable. That's why the main cannon fodder were called the "infantry" - they were the infants.
Perhaps it's interesting that Victorian soldiers could identify what we might think of as modern (or even postmodern) injustices and untruths in a premodern age. If so, there has to be a better way of bringing these points to life than by having a handful of characters telling each other things in a pub. The respect we owe to the real-life models for these characters inhibits their full dramatic realisation in this play.
And while it's unfair to compare a radio drama with a Hollywood movie, it's hard not to compare and contrast this play's use of the Buffalo Bill show with similar scenes in The Assassination of the Outlaw Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In that film, the nightly recreation of Jesse James's death on stage directly engages the theatre audience, who are implictly part of the outlaw's legend. Jesse James is already a celebrity when the movie starts - a man whose dime book adventures are more real than his actual exploits in the shrinking wild west.
But in Bearing the Cross, Buffalo Bill's show is only used to provide a platform for exposition of the battle. We're given just one character - Martha, the barmaid - who unequivocally approves of the soldiers' VCs and sees the medals as tokens of the community's regard for its heroes. A Kipling poem is used throughout the play to point up the ironies around society's use and abuse of its armed forces. And the only one of the soldiers who seems completely sure of the rightness of his and his comrades' actions will go on, we learn at the end, to commit suicide. The case for the establishment isn't put with much vigour, so the play ends up sounding like a long argument with an absent antagonist.
William Jones VC ...... Nigel Anthony
Robert Jones VC ...... Sebastian Harcombe
Henry Hook VC ...... Jon Strickland
Landlord/Buffalo Bill ...... Robert Blythe
Barmaid ...... Bethan Walker
Original music by David Chilton
Directed by Gordon House at Goldhawk Essential and broadcast on Friday 7 August 2009 at 14:15 on BBC Radio 4