Waterloo: The Ball at Brussels by Mike Walker

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Waterloo: The Ball at Brussels by Mike Walker. Dir. Marion Nancarrow. Perf. Simon Paisley Day, Stephen Greif, Jane Slavin. BBC Radio 4, 17 Jun. 2015. BBCiPlayer

I hope my readers (and the creative personnel involved) will forgive my slightly frivolous opening, but the basic situation of Mike Walker's play, produced to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, bore strong situational resemblances to that in Gerald Thomas's "Carry on Up the Khyber" (1968). In that film, itself a spoof of "Zulu" (1965), Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sidney James), his wife (Joan Sims) and party sit down to an evening meal while their residence is under attack from the Khazi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) and his men. Despite the carnage taking place around them (ceilings collapsing, guns firing, their forces dropping like flies) they continue to eat as if nothing had happened, much to the consternation of Brother Belcher (Peter Butterworth).

Mike Walker has the Duchess of Richmond (Jane Slavin) giving a ball two days before the Battle of Waterloo is due to begin. Much against his better judgment, the Duke of Wellington (Simon Paisley Day) agrees to attend, bringing most of his senior officers with him. This time it's the Duchess who wishes to party as if nothing was happening outside, while the Duke tries his best to enter into the festive spirit, even though he is far more preoccupied with Napoleon's movements, and his problematic relationship with French Prince Talleyrand (Stephen Greif), an ostensible ally who cannot be trusted.

Marion Nancarrow's production uses this basic situation to look at how the prospect of war affects different people. To the upper classes it is a serious business, but then so is the need to sustain a social fašade at the ball. To ordinary soldiers like Eddie (Neet Mohan) and Randolph (Mark Edel-Hunt), the prospect of war can provide a smokescreen for nefarious activities, reminding us that Wellington's army was not always comprised of willing supporters.

In the end the battle commences, and by doing so destroys the rather strained atmosphere of politeness that pervades the ball. War destroys families, breaks up relationships, and creates indiscriminate consequences: the upper and lower classes are equally likely to perish. With this knowledge in mind, we are left to wonder precisely what the point of the ball actually was.