Some wars sit easily in the national consciousness and others do not. The First World War in particular is normally digested in fairly simple terms: the tragedy of a generation of young men slaughtered on muddy battlefields. There’s little spoken about The Enemy, perhaps because many people would struggle to discuss in any detail the political events backdropping WWI and accounts of it (fictional and factual) often focus on the effect it had on the returning soldiers. More recent wars, in particular Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, have sharply divided opinion, making the returning soldier a much more complex figure, one who’s very different to his historic counterpart.
Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning mixes together the stories of three men coming home to Scarborough. The first two, George (Joe Layton) and Frankie (Jared Garfield) are as above. George is a shell-shocked veteran struggling to readjust to domestic life after witnessing his companions blown apart in France. Frankie’s story, however, is far less simple. Instead of returning to England as the war hero he intended, he’s coming back in disgrace. A video of him beating an innocent Afghan civilian has gone viral and the Sunday tabloids are well and truly after him.
Alongside these two stories is a futuristic narrative involving Nat (Jonnie Riordan), a lad attempting to make it back to Britain from Norway after an unspecified conflict has wrecked the country. This time, Nat isn’t a soldier, but his lost brother is, albeit a rebel fighter not a recruit to national service. Nat’s story is definitely the weak link of the piece, partly because it feels underdeveloped and too much is left to vague dystopian imaginings. Its links to the other two parts are also a little tenuous, while the contrast between George and Frankie – both in the specifics of their stories and in what they tell us about changes in the nation’s mythologizing of war – is often fascinating.
But while the text has its weaker moments, this visual language of The Unreturning is beautifully considered. Andrzej Goulding’s rotating shipping container cleverly suggests the continuous, overlapping cycles of war, along with how the memories of it remain with the soldiers once they return. But it’s the video design (also by Goulding) and Zoe Spurr’s lighting design that really nails the pitch of the overall piece. Although the general tone of the work is tragedy – not just the individual parts of the plot, but the overarching tragedy of conflict in how it fails everyone involved, Prime Minister to cannon fodder, lieutenant corporal to displaced civilian – The Unreturning stops short of becoming saccharine or sentimental.
Likewise, the choreography and movement of the work is a lovely balance of lyrical softness and upright-uptight masculinity. A co-production between Theatre Royal Plymouth and Frantic Assembly, there are several moments that feel quintessentially Frantic Assembly, particularly when the four cast members (Kieton Saunders-Browne joins the main three as, in turn, Nat’s boyfriend and his brother) work wordlessly together to lift, support and manipulate each other. Yet the group it also resembles is BalletBoyz, especially with their own work on intergenerational war, Young Men.
Jordan’s earlier play, Yen, collapsed together the machismo and intense vulnerability of boys-trying-to-be-men. And that sensitivity is here again in The Unreturning. She writes blokes well, perhaps simply because she takes them seriously, a talent and preoccupation that makes her work similar in some respects to Gary Owen’s Killology. But in The Unreturning that rupture between rough muscularity and soft childishness is present as much in the physical movement of the production, as it is in the text. It’s like standing on the edge of a pebbled beach, only to find the hard, rocky solidness gives way and collapses into the ocean as soon as you put your foot on it.
The Unreturning is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 2nd February, then touring to Chichester, Swansea, Leicester and Oxford. More info here.