‘No, no, I am but shadow of myself’ Act II, Scene II, Henry VI Part I
To many, warfare represents a horrific yet distant reality: one that we usually access through a short segment on the 10 o’clock news, a soundbite through Twitter or Facebook feeds, or in a 20-minute game of Call of Duty Modern Warfare. Dramsoc’s Pink Mist, set in Bristol, brings the stories of soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan to the forefront, in a poignant portrayal of the strength and fragility of human life.
Originally commissioned for BBC Radio 4, Owen Sheers’ verse-drama follows the story of three Bristol boys who join the army in search of a better life, a better wages, and ‘What’s Next after Next’. Fundamentally, the play focuses on what happens when the soldiers return to the UK to their wives, mothers and girlfriends, when they are not the same men as they were when they left. Inspired by real-life interviews with returning soldiers, the play does not shy away from the grim realities of modern warfare. We witness the soldiers on tour and when they return back home to tackle the devastating effects of war, most notably PTSD and homelessness.
The production itself is undoubtedly slick, with an original soundtrack by Will Bryant and Harry Nicholson, beautiful lighting and minimalistic set by Jason Palmer, and a small cast directed sensitively by Madi Mahoney. Movement is used throughout the show to punctuate the rhythmical nature of Sheers’ verse, and thus the soundtrack mirrors Liv Pockett’s choreography consistently throughout. The music in the show is mixed live, and it therefore becomes a response to the action on stage, which is particularly original and impressive.
In the first half, the cast form lines as if in military formation, dominating the stage with sharp movements. This is particularly effective when Arthur (confidently played by Alex Jenn) convinces the boys to sign up. The war games enacted on the playground or on the Xbox360 become a reality under the heat of the Afghan sun. Particularly harrowing moments include the scene when Hads (Jacob Grunberger) loses his legs in an explosion, reducing him from six-foot-four to four-foot-three. This is illustrated in the play as Hads smacked against a bench so loudly that I jumped, then dragged his body across the stage in a heartbreaking display of vulnerability. The story is supported by an exceptionally strong ensemble cast who transport the audience to the multitude of places described in Pink Mist, using only the movement of their bodies. The choreography does not shy away from the physicality of warfare as the cast explode across the stage; we hear them thud, slap and crash on the ground as they throw themselves from one side of the Winston to the other.
Yet despite this intensity, I found myself wanting more emotional and physical punch from the depictions of warfare. Sheers’ verse became too laboured, obscuring the emotion of the text and belying the horrific events described. Words occasionally became muffled underneath the pulsating soundtrack or overshadowed by movement of the cast during set pieces. The horrifying description of a man turned into a spray of ‘pink mist’ after being hit by an IED, and the image of a two-year-old embedded with a piece of shrapnel, thus seemed almost anticlimactic, and did not quite hold the power that perhaps it deserved.
That being said, what the first half of the show lacked in emotional power was more than made up for in the second half. The audience are shown the effects of the aftershock of war as the cast explore the stories of the women forced to put their sons, husbands, and loved ones, back together. Standout performances included Laura Marcus and Tullio Campanale as Lisa and Taff, who illustrated the fracturing of a young married couple’s family life under the strain of PTSD with heartbreaking delicacy. The choreography used to evoke the reunion of Arthur and his girlfriend Gwen (beautifully played by Maddie Coombe), was outstandingly well-conceived and moving. It was during these moments of stillness, towards the end of the performance, that the gravity of the emotional and physical cost of war was illustrated, leaving more than a few audience members in tears.
By the closing lines of Pink Mist, we’re under no impression that war is a game. Its devastating after-effects are laid bare in loss of limbs, life, and emotional stability, as the soldiers ricochet back into the lives of the mothers and girlfriends waiting for them at home.