War and the tapestry of war is well represented in popular culture, from Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen’s First World War poetry right up to current Hollywood films such as the Oscar nominated Hacksaw Ridge. So what is there new to say about it?
Pink Mist allows us to get to know the boys who sign up, as they always have, and leave their homes for war. They want to get out – “not going someplace but leaving somewhere” to become men. It also tells the story of the wife, girlfriend and mother who remain and have to pick up the pieces when they return. In some cases, literally.
Authentic voices resound throughout the piece, testament to Owen Sheers’ interviews with returning servicemen and their families. His crisp dynamic verse is complemented by precision stylised movement as it takes us from a homespun Bristol with numerous local references to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. However, the narrative will work well with audiences unfamiliar with both because at its heart is a story everyone can relate to – of friendship, comradeship and love. The spoken verse never overpowers the truth of the dialogue as we accompany the boys “to Catterick for basic” and on to combat and its consequences.
There is so much to admire in this production, not least the refusal to dwell on the relatively easy target of the politics of war. The anger is directed against an unseen enemy and demonstrates that armies exist by building on the very humanity that they seek to destroy. The boys, now men, fight for their mates on their left and their right, just as they did at Agincourt and in the trenches of the Somme.
Hads and Taff played by Alex Stedman and Peter Edwards powerfully support the excellent Dan Krikler making his professional debut as Arthur on this opening night. This should be the start of a promising career. He exudes strength and leadership, while retaining a boyish vulnerability.
There is humour as well, and not only of the gallows variety, while the women are left slightly to one side, just as they are in war. Rebecca Hamilton, Rebecca Killick and Zara Ramm add a tender and positive perspective and their voices sound so painfully accurate.
John Retallack and George Mann’s powerful production shines and fizzes, hitting you hard in the gut, especially during the choreographed scenes of escapism and danger. Jon Nicholls’ soundscape is integral to the piece and helps transform the poetry, first aired as a BBC Radio 4 production, into exciting, meaningful theatre.
We are left with an image of the pink mist of bodies exploding in the Afghan dust which will live long in the memory.
Who wants to play war? Pink Mist triumphs by telling the truth – not fake news. It’s the ones left at home as well as those on active service who have to keep soldiering on. ★★★★★ Bryan Mason at the Bristol Old Vic, 26th January 2017
Photo by Mark Douet