The Soldiers' Arts Academy In The Press
Tom Leigh & Phil Spencer Talk to Richard Hatch & Verity Geere about
SOLDIER ON Transition and their service in The Royal Marines Commandos
One thing is certain about PTSD: it’s over diagnosed. On the other hand, if you are a sailor who survived the burning of HMS Sheffield, a soldier who has been under fire in Helmand for 30 days continuously, or have seen your mate having both his legs blown off by an improvised explosive device, then, yes, anger, nightmares and alcohol misuse might well follow: PTSD. But it can be dealt with, mercifully.
Such is the subject of Jonathan Lewis’s Soldier On, a dramatisation of real-life stories from the military, with a troupe of damaged veterans trying to stage a play about their experiences. Don’t be put off by this gimmicky-sounding setup — it works a treat. Lewis also wrote the acclaimed Our Boys a while back, and obviously has a bit of a Kiplingesque affinity for soldiers (though not in a “young guardsman in St James’s Park” kind of way, you understand).
Several members of the cast are former servicemen, including Mark Kitto (Welsh Guards, served in Northern Ireland), Max Hamilton-Mackenzie (Royal Green Jackets, Kosovo), Shaun Johnson (Royal Artillery, Northern Ireland), Cassidy Little (42 Commando, Afghanistan), Steve Morgan (army reservist, Afghanistan), and Hayley Thompson (Royal Army Medical Corps).This lends a rock-solid sense of authenticity, and the other actors give entirely credible performances as well. There isn’t a weak link among them. The actresses are also compelling, especially Lizzie Mounter as the fiery Welsh Beth, Ellie Nunn as the Sloaney Sophie and Zoe Zak as Sergeant Sal.
One of her monologues is as haunting as any in the play: as a medic in Afghanistan, she takes a little girl, two or three years old, into her lap to try to comfort her. The little girl has just had her hands blown off by a roadside bomb, and both her parents have been killed. She won’t stop screaming and crying, then her bandaged stumps start to bleed again.
If these are the levels of almost unimaginable horror that provoke genuine PTSD, then it only makes the exaggerated claims of “victims” in ordinary life more obnoxious. On top of that, as always among soldiers, there is also the survival mechanism of gallows humour — even about roadside bombs.
‘“You’re about as sensitive as a f****** IED.”
“An IED is sensitive, you stupid f***wit.”
Despite the horrors, Soldier On is very, very funny, especially in the riotous workshops when the whole bunch get together to rehearse under the benevolent but exasperated tutelage of their director, Harry (David Solomon). There’s a constant threat of fistfights breaking out, inter-regimental insults flying, and reproducing any of the machinegun dialogue would involve a lot more asterisks — but f*** me, it’s funny.
It loses a little steam towards the end, but it remains revelatory nevertheless. A broader reservation: in modern theatreland, PTSD is about the only subject you encounter with regard to soldiers or matters military. It’s the same on TV. The sensitive classes who produce today’s dramas are only interested in soldiers as victims — despite the staunch rallying cry here of “Don’t be a victim!”, and a splendidly upbeat climax.
What you are never going to see on a modern stage or screen is a play about heroism, comradeship, sacrifice, even the raw (if, for some civilians, tasteless and taboo) thrill of combat. You won’t see any exciting, heart-pounding recreations of some of the triumphs of
British forces in recent years, such as the gruelling Operation Barras by the SAS in Sierra Leone, the Victoria Cross-winning actions of Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry in his Warrior armoured vehicle, or the siege of the Afghan fortress of Qala-i-Jangi.
There’s a sense that the only kind of soldiers we should pay attention to now aren’t the professional, highly trained combat forces who perform so outstandingly when put to the test, but those damaged souls who return home in need of care. Somehow, I can’t help thinking that this ties in with the way normal, energetic boys are treated in our anxious schools today.
For all that, Soldier On is a terrific piece of work, currently produced by the wonderful Soldiers’ Arts Academy charity. But it needs, and deserves, a lot more support. If someone doesn’t pick this play up and bring it to a full-sized West End theatre soon, then there really is no justice for our troops.
Playground Theatre, London W10, then touring
- BFBS Radio Interview with Founding Directer Amanda Faber
- Richard Hatch & Verity Geere
- Assistant Producer for 'Soldier On' - Samara Smith Updates BFBS Forces Radio.
- Unknown Artist
- Jonathan Lewis talks 'Soldier On' With Richard Hatch BFBS RADIO
- Unknown Artist