Bush Theatre January-February 2016
Owen Sheers' play, which premiered at the Bristol Old Vic last summer, tells a familiar story. But it does so with such poetic eloquence and inventive and evocative staging as to make the old story as powerful and involving as if we had not heard it before.
Sometime in the first decade of this century three British lads at loose ends join the army on a lark and go off to war in Afghanistan. There they find patriotism, discipline, pride, excitement, camaraderie and meaning in their lives.
They also find physical and mental wounds that do not heal easily, and even death, while the women they left behind – wife, girlfriend, mother – must, as soldiers' women have always done, worry about them while they're away and try to rebuild lives when they come home profoundly changed.
You probably would not notice if the playwright did not point it out in a note to the published script that this story is entirely presented in narrative, the characters describing events and feelings from after the fact rather than living them before our eyes.
The power of Sheers' unobtrusive but evocative verse, along with a highly visual staging by John Retallack and George Mann, insure that the play is unwaveringly dramatic and theatrical – so much so that it is another surprise to read in Sheers' note that it was conceived as a radio play.
The two directors choreograph the play so that the performers are always in motion, either acting out what is being narrated or moving in tight but fluid patterns to reflect and express the mood and spirit of what is being said.
The effect is like ballet set to words rather than music, and is both beautiful in itself and a visual enrichment of the story. (If you saw, onstage or on TV, the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch a few years ago, you have some sense of how balletic movements and military precision work together here.)
So the one great terrible truth about war – that, whatever the cause and whatever the justification, young men are damaged and killed – hits us with the power and pathos it fully deserves.
The play is structured so that Phil Dunster as one of the lads carries much of the narrative burden, which he does excellently, and for that reason alone he deserves singling out.
But the others – Peter Edwards, Alex Stedman, Rebecca Hamilton, Rebecca Killick and Zara Ramm – are equally brilliant and equally generous in creating what is very much an ensemble piece.
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