I’ve never given much thought to being a ‘civilian’. Nor have I really considered the nature of that strange and difficult gap between a civilian and military life – how to cross over, how to come back. The Grandfathers, Rory Mullarkey’s 2012 New Connections play revived at The Shed, prompts these unexpected considerations. In an unspecified country not so different to ours, engaged in a faintly familiar-sounding overseas conflict, government conscription demands that eight teenagers give up 547 days of their young lives to compulsory military service.
The rationale behind this somewhat dystopian scheme is undisclosed, all we’re told is that ‘when men in suits fuck up’, we send in these kid soldiers – gangly, skinny, still playing dress-up in their combat gear, still unsure how to carry themselves. When they line-up and stand to attention, the effect is pure tragicomedy, surely too sad and too funny to be true. The Grandfathers excels at going to dark places on light feet – jokey boyish banter curdling with implacable fears. It’s clear from the off, as we open on a battlefield where panicked soldiers huddle and tumble over each other like trapped animals, that this is an anthem for decidedly doomed youth.
In the programme notes, Mullarkey gives an account of a visit to a training regiment, his general attitude being one of intrigue, bafflement, an awe half-horrifed, half-impressed. If even the writer identifies himself as an outsider, it’s no surprise The Grandfathers offers itself not so much as an insight but rather a sort of visual eavesdropping. A barracks door is opened for us and we glance around an unfamiliar, never-to-be familiar environment. Orders are barked. Cowardice is mocked, stamped out. Mantras echo, somewhat hollow in the mouths of frightened children: “Train hard, fight easy!”
Conscription allows Mullarkey’s soldiers their relatable vulnerability, kept awake at night with nightmarish thoughts, simple ‘civilian’ fears. What does a fatal wound feel like? Who is waiting in that other country, thinking up methods of torture beyond our worst imaginings? One conscript hits a nerve when he considers the nauseating futility of an ideological war. Yes, you can kill the enemy and take their land but ‘you can’t drill into their heads and remove their ideas!’ – so what counts as victory? The language is lyrical and often lacerating, but the music underscoring the action gives it an oddly filmic tranquility that sometimes mutes the brutality of the subject matter. It’s at its best when the sergeant’s sardonic monologues are punctuated by the beat of ragged breaths and stomping boots – training is a repeated regime of push-ups and star-jumps where we witness real bodies under real duress, the closest we really ever come to understanding the hard reality of military service.
Though brimming with promise, at a mere 50 minutes, The Grandfathers feels strangely incomplete. With its short scenes and time jumps, the whole thing feels a little like a teaser trailer for a full-scale piece that sadly doesn’t exist. Still, the ensemble are an intensely likeable bunch, with the cast of young actors turning in thoughtful, if not always blistering, performances. Lorenzi Niyongabo shines as the only actor who really inhabits Mullarkey’s sparse, controlled poetics, his melodic voice like a calm centre amongst the sometimes frenzied exchanges. As Kol, Guy Remmers has all the necessary adolescent awkwardness coupled with a well-aimed blue-eyed intensity, throwing off occasional sparks of comic brilliance that light up the entire ensemble, hinting at what this half-a-play could’ve been if we shared their company for a little longer.
Valourising or condemnatory? The Grandfathers hovers between the two with an understandable pensiveness. Yes, there is bravery and brotherhood. There is also the question-and-answer mantra meant to embolden the heart of a quivering conscript, ‘What makes the grass grow? Blood.’ The Grandfathers is not merely a ‘topical’ play but a herald of ever-present and ever uncomfortable truths. Mullarkey reminds us that any war is a queasy ethical quagmire, the young cast of unknowns mirroring almost too closely the faceless numbers who still march off to, if not inglorious, then distinctly unglorified deaths.