Writer: Owen Sheers
Directors: John Retallack, George Mann
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
A series of meetings at the highest levels and one decision – to go to war – sends ripples of aftershock that affect thousands for years to come. It is not just the soldiers heading to the frontline who sign up for a tour of duty, but so also do their wives and families left at home. And the horrors continue well after the tours have finished, for the families and those that come home, as much as for the families of those that don’t.
The dramatic verse of Owen Sheers’play,Pink Mist, is vividly brought to life at Bristol Old Vic. Relying heavily on the narration of the lead character Arthur, nothing is lost in portraying the horrors of war and its aftermath – yet we see very little. Despite the daily tip-toeing around land mines and IEDs in Afghanistan, it is the unseen damage caused by the unexploded mine inside each veteran’s mind that is at the core of this gripping and gut-wrenching play.
The cadences and rhythm of Sheers’ verse are emphatically enhanced by the choreographed, synchronised movements of the six-member cast. At one moment the cast is swaying to and fro in unison as they portray the soothing routines of local fishermen slinging their hooks and pulling rigging; the next they are sharply pulling their guns to the chest to ‘ready position’ and jerkily scanning from left to right with their weapons in the hope of covering their positions and their comrades.
Sheers wrote this play based on first-hand interviews with veterans and families. It tells the story of three typical, but fictional, young men, Arthur, Taff and Hads. All friends from school and all struggling to find a place in the world that makes sense to them. Signing up for the army gives them the chance to make a difference, do something important and patriotic, and, in the case of Taff, to provide for a young family. In the Army, they find purpose, a sense of worth and fellowship. In basic training the experiences are exhilarating, on tour in Afghanistan, the stakes are higher.
The title Pink Mist harrowingly refers to the effect in the air caused by the tiny droplets of blood floating after a direct hit vaporises a colleague. Instead of allowing this visceral image to turn in to the red mist of rage and revenge, Sheers turns our attention to the need for compassion and rehabilitation of the survivors and their families. The reasons or success of the military and political goals of this conflict are not even mentioned. Avoiding blame and rancour, the sought after victory in this play is to heal the mental and emotional wounds for those returning to domestic life and to find hope and a new purpose for those affected.
The cast is superb. Phil Dunster as Arthur, Peter Edwards as Taff, Alex Steadman as Hads, successfully capture the three young men balanced on the cusp of youthful naivety and tipping to war-scarred vulnerability. The training and adrenalin-pumped bravery providean armour in conflict, but when the threat is gone can leave a man with a carapace as fragile as an egg shell. The suffering of the wives, girlfriends and mothers are grasped by the rest of the cast. Playing Hads’ mother, Zara Ramm’s anguish in not at first recognising her son so disfigured and wrapped in bandages in hospital is heartbreaking. Rebecca Killick’s rage bottled up until it pours out in a Brechtian scream leaves an indelible image. Rebecca Hamilton, playing Gwen, Arthur’s girlfriend, captures the hidden suffering, confusion and dignity of those looking for help.
Set design, music and lighting are sparingly used but when they are it is most dramatic. The colours and sounds of the various locations and explosions are evocatively captured by lighting designer Pater Harrison and sound designer Jon Nicholls. Emma Cains’ set is sparse, just a bench and significantly, always, the wheelchair. Dialect coach, Gary Owston’s input into the Bristol accents adds a touching local vitality and relevance. George Mann’s influence in the choreographed movements magnifies the action and energy to what might have been an otherwise static production.
This production heavily relies on narration making us focus on the people. Ingeniously directed by John Retallack and George Mann the play’s extraordinary success is despite not seeing anything, we feel everything. The horror of war and mutilation of bodies are not seen but experienced nevertheless. Yet the mental and emotional scars, hidden to all in everyday life, are here on stage in the spotlight for all to see and calling for understanding.
Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image: Mark Douet