Writer: Owen Sheers
Directors: John Retallack and George Mann
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
When we think of battle we may think of the infamous Red Mist – a state that sees anger erupt into pure rage. Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist, though, is something more subtle but way more horrific.
Poet and playwright Sheers explores with devastating effect the pink mist of the title – a harrowing incidence of someone being instantly vaporised in front of you, a friend vanishing in a spray of pink blood. It’s an occurrence that, understandably, traumatises our soldiers, and through Sheers’ vital, visceral and vibrant wordplay, one that also can’t fail to move its audience.
Commissioned by Bristol Old Vic, and now beginning a national tour after two acclaimed runs in the city, Pink Mist may have its roots on the banks of the Avon but its themes are universal. The tale of three young men from the city signing up to the army to exchange their mundane lives for a tour in Afghanistan. There are echoes, in this centenary commemoration period, of the First World War Pals Battalions; it may be on a smaller scale here, but the impact is no less devastating.
As school friends Hads, Taff and Arthur transform from carefree youths to battle-scarred warriors, Sheers’ script pulls no punches. Yet it does so with subtlety. There’s no shying away from the horrors of war – the physical injuries are depicted with simple, yet stark fluidity – but given equal prominence are the mental impacts on both the trio and the women they leave behind.
Directors John Retallack and George Mann fuse the masterly wordplay with stylistic physical performances that drive the story forward with a breathtaking sense of urgency. It’s a movement drilled with appropriate military precision – the company of six swarming in perfect Greek Chorus-like unison, their actions speaking the overwhelming emotion that words can’t convey. Add in a pitch-perfect sound and lightscape (Jon Nicholls and Peter Harrison) and with nothing more than a bench, three helmets and a wheelchair, we are thrust totally into the heart of the action. It’s simple, lyrical and utterly absorbing.
The ensemble, onstage throughout, is faultless. Dan Krikler makes an impressive professional stage debut as Arthur. Krikler carries most of the weight of anchoring the piece, acting as narrator and catalyst. It’s a mesmerising performance that draws us in as he persuades his mates Hads (Alex Stedman) and Taff (Peter Edwards) into this ultimate boys’ own adventure.
Around them, the women in the trios life have to endure the emotional roller coaster just outside the army circle of comradery. Rebecca Hamilton and Rebecca Killick as the two women facing loving men they no longer recognise, while Zara Ramm conveys the horror of a mother who faces a future of nursing her injured son, a man reduced in many ways to childhood again by his experience. Individually all the performances are pitched perfectly but put them together and they meld into something truly inspirational, becoming a taut, precise unit – much like the military battalion the story follows.
There’s a gut-wrenching emotional punch; more than one moment when the lump in the throat is accompanied by a tear in the eye, but there is also something stronger. Pink Mist may show the horror of conflict and the impact on those far beyond the battlefield but it’s power also has a transformative impact. After this auditory and emotionally intense assault, we can’t help but reflect on the true cost of war. In an age of increasingly unsettled political times, that reflection can only be worthwhile.
Much like his remarkable The Two Worlds of Charlie F, Sheers has once again transformed the authentic voices of the battlefield into something that transcends pure wordplay. Another Owen (Wilfred) became the voice of the First World War front, Pink Mist deserves to be held in the same esteem when chronicling contemporary conflict.
Runs until 9 February 2017 then tours| Image: Mark Douet