Writer: Owen Sheers
Director: John Retallack & George Mann
Reviewer: S.E. Webster
The theatre has long been lauded as a space in which our society can challenge authority, examine the human condition, explore fresh ideas and project new voices. Thus, Owen Sheers’s highly acclaimed drama, Pink Mist forces audiences to confront and re-examine important, difficult issues, in this case the war in Afghanistan and the experience of the soldiers who served in it. Originally staged in 2015 at the Old Vic in Bristol, Pink Mist has enjoyed sell-out runs in Bristol and London and is now touring nationally.
The play itself is inspired by 30 interviews from returned servicemen. The result is that the voices of the characters are authentic, the viewpoints are balanced and the experience feels both raw and real. There’s transparency and honesty in the accounts of the young men and women, and the sympathetic portrayal of the servicemen and their loved ones is a far cry from the trivialisation and melodramatics we often witness from TV drama.
Reminiscent of the spoken word performances of poets like Kate Tempest, the script has true grit, and Sheers employs rich language that is both rhythmic and highly lyrical. The audience instantly connects with this highly emotive language and become totally engrossed in the narrative.
The set is minimalist and this works extremely well in allowing the action to ricochet backwards and forwards between Bristol and Afghanistan. Yet, so powerful is the combination of the ensemble performance, lighting, sound and Sheers’ stunning script, that the temptation for audience members to look for birds in the sky or even the posters ‘decorating’ Arthur’s bedroom walls is simply irresistible and is testament to the thoroughly immersive experience of Pink Mist.
Moreover, the lighting design should be complemented on its creative influence. From the cold, literally grey reality of life away from the frontline back in Bristol, to the pink mist, the use of the colour blue in the blue on blue scene, the bright green signifying the infrared night-time vision, to the intermittent red and orange bursts of anger, gunfire and explosion, the lighting literally colours the soldiers experiences and is beautifully integrated throughout.
Though this play focuses on Afghanistan, it’s arguably a larger reflection upon the cyclical recurrence of war throughout the ages. From the repeated action of the boys standing in the playground crying “Who wants to play war” to Taff’s reminder of the many war veterans who are destitute and homeless on our streets, history has a habit of repeating itself. Whether it was shell shock in World War One or PTSD in Afghanistan, many returning servicemen are still plagued by the aftermath of the war and the play subsequently offers a broader outlook.
Physical theatre is also a key component in this production as the actors respond to a blend of shifting sounds, as bombs dissolve into fireworks and machine gun fire mixes with dubstep. There is some really beautiful and well-executed choreography, such as the scene where Hads steps back on the IED and, spinning backwards in slow motion, eventually finishes sitting upright in his wheelchair. Furthermore, the repetition of certain movements combined with some superb synchronicity from the ensemble results in powerful, symbolic ‘echoes’ throughout the performance, such as the swan dive and fiery cross, once again reinforcing the cyclical elements of warfare.
Sheers has created a modern masterpiece that is both brutally honest and haunting. The play’s cultural significance and importance should not be underestimated and given its subject matter and the warm reception it has received thus far, its success shows no sign of waning.
Runs until 25 February 2017 | Image: Marc Douet