REVIEW: Soldier On, Playground Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Soldier On At The Playground Theatre
The company of Soldier On

Soldier On
Playground Theatre
13th March 2018
5 Stars

Something remarkable is happening at the Playground Theatre.  This newest of venues on the London fringe, inhabiting a converted bus garage up Latimer Road, just a few yards from Westway and, beyond that, the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.  A kind of cultural rebirth.  Just as the space underneath the motorway buzz with the activity of sportsmen on the floodlit astroturf pitches, so too does the once industrial space of the Playground positively hum with creativity and innovation.  Having burst upon the scene a few months ago with a memorable staging of ‘Picasso’, we now get a new work from the practised pen of Jonathan Lewis, which, in his own production, is every bit as arresting and unusual.

Lewis, who trained as a soldier before moving into acting as a career – in which he has been distinguished and successful, long ago also turned his attention to writing about military life, amongst many other subjects, and he has enjoyed seeing his 1982 hit ‘Our Boys’ recently revived in the West End.  Now, he turns over the often treated topic of PTSD, but in an original and novel way: combining actual veterans (some with drama training, some without) with professional actors, he has created a remarkable company of 19 to fill the space with a kind of therapy session for those afflicted by the phenomenon, directly or indirectly, as sufferers or as family members, spouses, colleagues.  Having researched the work carefully over the past two years, including a verbatim-based workshop, thanks to the hard work and belief of producer Amanda Faber and her Soldiers Arts Academy, the play now comes to London as a meticulously scripted and vividly dramatised event into which paying audiences are invited to stray.

And we do feel as if we are intruding.  The intensity, the realness of the experience is so poignant that we feel first of all either numbed by its power, or, and perhaps this is the more widely felt reaction, drawn into complicity with what is happening around us.  After all, it is the British public who elected the representatives who voted to send the armed forces into Afghanistan and Iraq, where interminable warfare has ensued, with no end in sight, nor any tangible point emerging from the nearly ceaseless loss of life and continuing injuries (most of which, of course, have been born by the Afghans and Iraqis, whose voices are not really heard in this play).  So, rather akin to ‘Coming Home’ and other such American dramas of the relentless pain and trauma of the equally fatuous and dismal Vietnam escapade, the play asks us to observe the boys and girls of Britain marching back to the home front in psychological and physical tatters.

David Solomon here plays a director, Harry, whose job it is to rehearse a group of affected vets present a play about … PTSD.  So, the actors appear ont he stage, to work on their scenes, and sometimes appear to be in their ‘own’ world, apart from the pretense of theatre.  Whether in the fierce, petrified stare of Zoe Zak, or in the halting utterances of Steve Morgan, the bull-like, charging interventions of Cassidy Little’s prosthetic-user (he joshes that he’s A.W.O.L.: Acting With One Leg), the company create a powerfully edgy atmosphere, fluidly encompassing a truly epic range of moods and scale, from uniformed square bashing to intimate scenes of tender affection or domestic conflict.  Added to the protean direction of Lewis, Lily Howkins’ choreography and assistant direction and movement are an inseparable match for everything the author does: it is a thrill in itself to see this at work.

The team draw such wonderful truthfulness from the cast, that it is hard, sometimes, to know where all this action springs from: surely, it must come from them?  With no decor to hide amongst, only an empty space, and occasional projections (Harry Parker, whose verses also adorn the published text), the field is open for Hayley Thompson, Androcles Scicluna, Mike Prior, Ellie Nunn, Lizzie Mounter, Max Hamilton-Mackenzie and Bryan Michael Mills (who also created the musical score, and Max cooks up the sound scape, along with Matteo di Cugno), Shaun Johnson, Rekha John-Cheriyan, Claire Hemsley, Mark Kitto (extraordinary, as a sufferer from MS, especially in a remarkably tense choreographic episode), Mark Griffin, Stephanie Greenwood, Thomas Craig and Nicholas Clarke all to do their respective bits to bring the work alive.  Sophie Savage dresses them all superbly, and Mark Dymock lights everything with appropriately alternating bold and ‘ordinary’ effects.

Yes, many of the short scenes have a bold, soap-opera-esque quality to them, but that is completely right given the simultaneous grandeur and commonness of the subject.  It is also extraordinarily well thought out as a tactic to dissemble: it becomes impossible to tell who the trained actors are and who the amateurs.  This confusion reaches especial heights in the musical interludes, and above all in the gripping choral finale to the first half, in which the musical direction of Oli Rew achieves a massive hit: our spirits are lifted as they are meant to be by the human strength of the voices we hear. The musical score by Max Hamilton-Mackenzie and Bryan Michael Mills

The missing element in the drama, if there is one, is that of the people giving the orders.  This is a play about those who receive, implement and carry out their instructions.  The highest ranks present – colonel, squadron leader – are not those of the decision-making kind.  They, in their own words, ‘get things done’.  And how.  Handed the impossible objective of pacifying Afghanistan by force (something which has only been achieved by one Westerner, Alexander the Great, and not for long), the blood which is then spilt is on their hands, and a trouble to their consciences, not a problem for those far away in Washington and Westminster who sent them there on this meaningless and completely unachievable mission.

Meanwhile, the troops continue to discuss Helmand as if it were Herefordshire, innocently, blindly talking about how they will apply western methods to settling into the place, and with not a shred of irony.  In 1980, the Soviet Union, a superpower with a long land frontier with the country, invaded Afghanistan to prop up the tottering central government.  They lasted a few years.  And then they packed up their bags and left, ignominiously.  Shortly thereafter, a veteran of that ill-fated misadventure made a film about a detachment of soldiers stuck in a death-trap of a position, ‘9th Company’.  There is a scene in it in which the political instructor begins by telling the recruits, ‘Nobody has ever succeeded in conquering Afghanistan’.  Ruefully, he glares at the young, fresh faces of the volunteers, none of whom – it is plain – even begins to grasp the import of what he is saying.  And then, with a bitter sigh, he gets them to intone the rote-learnt propaganda messages that have brought them there.  The same messages that the Americans and British repeated, with equal lack of success, when they took it upon themselves, for reasons which I cannot possibly begin to understand, to take up the job the Russians had wisely abandoned.

We hear those mantra echoed in this script, too.  And nothing has changed.  Nothing at all.  Except for many hundred thousand more Afghan and Iraqi deaths, and some hundreds of Britons killed and injured in a sequence of botched wars that have sent a seismic wave of disruption through the entire islamic world.  These conflicts have shaken the southern flank of Russia and of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and also propelled a massive wave of refugees into Europe.  And if anybody today is concerned at why Russia seems a bit miffed at Britain, then they could do worse than to look long and hard at what our troops have done and are continuing to do in that part of the world, with the support of the British public.

Of course, that may not be ‘the message’ of this play, but when a drama so effectively forces us to look at and think about human suffering in this way, who knows where the audiences’ imaginations may lead them.  Some people may conclude that possibly, just possibly, the way that military force is used by the British government deserves some reconsideration, even change.  We shall have to wait and see. Somehow I doubt that the voice of wisdom will be heard much in our halls of power.  Our leaders would sooner re-invade Russia (they’ve already done it twice: 1918, 1854, and other western countries did the same in 1941, 1914, 1812) than back down.  Of course, the British military is in no position to undertake such an ambitious move.  Instead, it must content itself with attacking smaller, weaker targets, like Afghanistan and Iraq.  But, even then, it can’t beat them.  That must really hurt.

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