“Who wants to play war?!” As a rallying call to arms Arthur’s rousing battlecry, roared above the noise of a boozy Bristol bar, takes some beating. Of course you do, who wouldn’t? Given the choice of a dead-end job and responsibilities thrust on young shoulders, who wouldn’t chose the thrill of war.
But Owen Sheers’ harrowing return to the sights and smells of Bastion shows us what we don’t want to see and Pink Mist makes us hear the awful truth about war. It’s not a game for boys, played by trigger-happy kids more used to computer games. It’s a lifetime’s legacy of pain and bewilderment.
I’m fortunate enough to see hundreds of stage productions a year. Some are forgotten by the end of the journey home while others leave an indelible memory that can haunt for years.
One such play was Sheers’ The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a landmark piece of verbatim theatre that used real life stories, delivered by ex-service personnel suffering mental and physical injuries from the Afghan conflict.
It was a remarkable production that left audiences, myself included, overwhelmed, crying, angry, spent with emotion and anguish – and pride in the power of performances from a largely unprofessional cast. Four years have passed yet it stays with me still.
Sheers returned to the same themes, and with an entirely professional cast, with Pink Mist, a gut-wrenching, shocking, elegy to a generation’s shattered ambitions and dreams.
It sounds such a cute, fluffy title doesn’t it? It’s horrifying to learn that a pink mist is all that is left of a squaddie after they’ve been obliterated by personnel mine or IED.
The Bristol Old Vic production, first performed last summer, is on manoeuvres to London, playing at the Bush Theatre until February 13 before returning west for a second run in Bristol.
See it. Be consumed by it. Listen to the poetry of its dialogue and I defy you not to be moved by its tragedy. I stifled a little sob, once again swept up in the performances (Phil Dunster deserves an award) and the heartbreaking story.
Directors John Retallack and George Munn have crafted a delicate elegance out of the grim savagery of war. There’s no set, just a bench and a wheelchair for props, and a cast of six using graceful, wonderfully choreographed movements (very Japanese I thought, I don’t know why) to interpret the playwright’s rhythmic verse-drama.
We mostly hear from Arthur (Dunster) whose primal scream to arms encouraged his two best mates, Hads and Taff, to sign up for the awfully big adventure. Three little boys, who used to play soldiers, now off for basic training and an unknown but thrilling future.
Sheers’ evocative dialogue captures the spirit of the people and the sights and sounds of Bristol. You can almost smell the Apple Cider Boat bobbing in the harbour; the boozy nights staggering down the gangplank of the rowdy floating music venue, The Thekla; picture Hads trying to keep down a job in fashion retail (But what’s next after Next?).
Arthur left school and ended up parking container lorries at the docks and shuffling along with his girlfriend. Was this all there was to life?
One night, after too many pints, he spots a recruitment poster and the next morning signs up, convincing Taff and Hads to join him.
Their mums/ girlfriends/ partners don’t understand but they’re euphoric at the chance of doing something special.
The story is played out through flashbacks, repeat phraseology, and movement. The pain in Arthur’s eyes is traumatic to watch, their suffering becomes our suffering as we see how all three are profoundly affected, in different ways, by their life-altering experience.
Back in Bristol their families bear the brunt of their agonies and, for some, their lives will never be the same again.
There’s humour in the boys’ camaraderie, that easy-going relationship that has developed from childhood, but they’re clumsy and lacking the right vocabulary to make outsiders comprehend their feelings.
It is a devastating and profoundly moving story that will make you weep. Peter Edwards’ gives a powerful, understated, performance as the sullen, unresponsive and moody Taff who returns a changed man and a stranger to his partner and little boy. While Alex Stedman’s buoyant and optimistic Hads can, despite everything he has gone through, think about a viable future. It’s a noble, dignified and quietly heroic portrayal.
The women – Rebecca Hamilton, Rebecca Killick and Zara Ramm – show strength in support of their three boy soldiers.
Pink Mist plays at Bush Theatre until February 13.
Owen Sheers returns to battle with the haunting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and utterly devastating Pink Mist. It will tear your heart out.