“War stories aren’t really anything more than stories about people anyway.” Michael Herr, Dispatches
Taking a cue from my friend, Jason, this is my first theater review. It’s not a pure theater review, but my experience there plus a review.
Through a friend, I learned of a preview performance of ‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ in London before it heads up to Edinburgh Fringe in August. Before going, I knew absolutely nothing about its content, purpose, or background. With nothing else to do on a Sunday evening, my wife and I set off.
The preview was shown at the Old Vic Tunnels, close to Waterloo station. Entry is gained through a dingy fire door along an innocuous wall. I only spotted it because of the huddle of well-dressed theater-seeming people drinking beer out of plastic cups gathered outside. Inside, the tunnels are dark and scarcely lit. A damp, white mist hangs in the place and the air stinks of unfinished basement. If I hadn’t paid to get in, I would have thought it was gross.
Making our way past the box office, we reached the bar, situated right outside the theater. We arrived only a few minutes before showtime, so we didn’t have time to get a beer. I got the impression from the faces around me that this was the first time many of them were at this venue, and they didn’t know whether to be charmed or disgusted. People looked like drained zombies, watching each other nervously and critically. It was very quiet.
Standing around, not drinking, my mind wandered. I’m always a little nervous when the military is put on display for the masses, or in this case, the theatre crowd. Most people do not have any connections to the military, so this might be as close as they’ll ever get. An anti-military performance or a caricatured performance might confirm forever a person’s impressions.
Shortly thereafter, the doors opened and the ushers began letting people through. We pushed to the front of the gathering crowd and slid through the doors. The theater was long and narrow. The ‘stage’ was not elevated and neither were the seats. We moved to about the mid-section and sat behind a couple of teenagers with small heads. The seats looked like old vinyl movie theater seats. Some of them had sheets of paper on them that said WET SEAT. Water dripped from the ceilings and ran in quick streams down the brown, rocky walls. The stage was eerily-bathed in low light, and a deep, steady humming sound rolled slowly and loudly from the speakers.
Sitting, I began reading the program. I got nervous when I spotted a reference to the “purported” death of Osama bin Laden in the ‘Note from the Director.’ Purported? That loaded word invoked conspiracy, and my stomach turned at the thought of having to sit through a 55 minute lecture on the lies and atrocities of the Great Imperial War Machine. Aside from that, everything else looked good in the program, and I was happy to see that they used a military advisor (Sapper Rob Grover) to ensure accuracy and realism (the most important thing to a veteran audience, mind you). Still, you never know what you’re going to get. A military advisor disgruntled with his service may see things through a very different lens than others. His short bio said he is still serving, so I wasn’t too worried.
Shortly after taking our seats, the theater went dark (except for the stage) and the performance began. The theater was full.
The deep humming noise crescendoed into a bass-heavy techno track as four actors stormed the stage in British military combat gear and began ‘clearing’ the room. Methodical, realistic, and well-choreographed, it looked like dance. Is this going to be performance art, I wondered? I hoped not – I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I never realized just how choreographed and dance-like room-clearing can look, all sharp gestures and angles. Once the room was cleared, the music faded and the dialogue began (phew).
Three men and a woman.
The first thing that struck me was the female cast member. Obviously, I was watching some kind of British combat unit. Do the Brits allow women in the infantry, I thought? I don’t think so. I wrote it off as artistic license, and assumed that since this was being performed by a small troupe, a woman would have to play a man’s role. That, or pure ignorance of the military by the theater group, despite having a military advisor. As the play developed, I learned that ignorance or artistic license wasn’t the cause, and gender plays a powerful and central role in the story. I had automatically assumed the troupe got it wrong. When it comes to accuracy, veterans rarely give the benefit of doubt.
The story is about four British soldiers who barricade themselves in a room in Afghanistan. Something bad has happened shortly before, and we only learn the details as the story develops. The situation in the room grows more tense as the enemy (Taliban? We don’t actually know) gets closer pressuring the team to do something. One of the soldiers presses the leader to quit waffling and ‘make a decision.’ This character, a young soldier, but seemingly combat experienced, is convinced that violent aggression and decisive action are the only solutions to the problem. He is a War is War(rior). His superior also seems tested and combat experienced, as he weighs the available options. The main conflict in the story is not the Brits vs. gunmen, but the aggressive British soldier vs. his more cautious superior.
We learn about the individual characters through ‘flashback’ scenes, accomplished through sudden changes in lighting accompanied by sound and robotic movements by the cast as they get into position. The first couple of flashback scenes are strange. The audience (or at least I) wasn’t ready for it. Plus, the actors are still wearing their uniforms, despite flashing back to scenes where they are in their homes, the supermarket, or a doctor’s office. After a few of these, though, they become more believable.
The troupe did an excellent job in nailing these tough issues without caricaturing the military.
In the best scene, I sat cringing as a military character argued with his ex-wife over her refusal to let him see their child. Although she had valid concerns, she was being rude and unreasonable, and he was getting angrier. As the situation escalated, and pleading turned to yells, it seemed like the military character was going to snap and do something stupid. But he didn’t. His character came off as intelligent, if emotionally distressed, but good. It would have been very easy, and more dramatic, to have him do something else (like hit her). I think the audience (and I) expected him to do something stupid, or at least, expected to see him do something stupid. He is a combat veteran dealing with incredible pressures, and it seemed like he was ready to burst. Good on the company for portraying such a complicated character as he is, and not as we expect to see him.
Speaking with my cousin over the weekend, who works in film, we discussed the failure of war movies at the box office. We agreed that contemporary war movies don’t do well because it is hard for (non-military) people to connect with them. Most people don’t understand the military, so how are they going to understand a war movie (the military in the most extreme situation)?
‘Go To Your God Like A Soldier,’ does a good job at connecting with the audience because half of the performance is not at war at all, but back home, at places and with people familiar to everybody. The group does a good job at taking something that is abstract to most people (men and women in the military at war) and deconstructing it to a form that is recognizable and digestible, without relying on stereotypes. It is an exciting performance that leaves the audience thinking. Highly recommended.