Writer: Helen Benedict
Director: Prav MJ
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
It’s surprising just how little the experience of combat has changed in the last 100 years. The weapons have evolved, tactics modernised and public buy-in for the causes of war is no longer a given, but the emotions and processes the individual undergoes are fairly consistent. The initial adjustment to a communal, disciplined life designed to homogenise recruits still exists, as do the fears of death and maiming, the creation of bonds of trust with comrades and the difficulty of returning to a civilian life where no one else understands.
Interestingly these questions become considerably more complex when the service personnel are women, and this new production by Helen Benedict interlaces the testimony of seven female American soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early twenty-first century. In turn each comes forward to conversationally address the audience with an anecdote about an aspect of their service history, and as the stories unfold the audience is presented with a damning case against both the war itself and the way female personnel were treated by their own side.
The Lonely Soldier Monologues uses real stories from female veterans and has clearly been carefully researched – this is most evident in the unofficial structure which divides the stories into four sections based on their chronological experience. The first deals with recruitment so each woman introduces herself and her background while explaining when and why she joined up. The second section examines the culture of American bases, the day-to-day sexism of male colleagues and actual harassment from senior officers, racism against non-white soldiers and local Iraqi life. Stage three is the combat experience, the need to kill and cope with death, as well as problems with equipment and poor leadership, while the final section talks about the difficulties of returning to civilian life. The stories shared by the seven women provide a human insight into this experience – one that is both engaging and at times upsetting.
One of the many rôles of theatre is to challenge and provoke which the subject matter certainly does, but there are two issues which prevent the audience from fully engaging. By the end of Act One, which lasts a little over an hour, concentration is sadly beginning to slip. It begins with some nods to re-enacted scenes using an eighth actress playing mothers and recruiting officers but soon the way the scenes are presented becomes a little samey and the repetitive structure of this piece actually detracts from what is being said. Perhaps slimming this down to 70-80 minutes and removing the unnecessary interval would maintain the tension a little better and reiterate the impossibility of escape from the relentless memories and guilt for these women.
The second issue is more about contextual balance. There is no doubt this production is anti-war and rightly aggrieved about the treatment of female soldiers, but a little more ambiguity would be no bad thing to keep the audience engaged. Returning combatants often have very mixed feelings about what they have done so it is rather old-fashioned to try to categorise something as complex as warfare as a wholly bad experience. While the suffering of these women is distressing, are there others who enjoyed it or felt more positively about it? It could potentially be more interesting to present this as an intellectual debate not just about the rôle of female service personnel but about the multi-layered and contradictory effects of participating in war.
Those concerns should not, however, entirely detract from the excellent work of the eight actresses – Kathryn Gardner, Stephanie James, Rachel Handshaw, Leonor Lemee, Jen Painter, Sharlit Deyzac, Tamina Davar and Olivia Onyehara – who give engaging and affecting performances. These monologues do give an important and concerning insight into the treatment of women in the American armed forces, made far more difficult in a war that nobody wanted.
Runs Until31 May