Welsh poet, novelist and writer Owen Sheers created Pink Mist as a poem, published as a verse drama and broadcast on radio, before it became a play; and George Mann & John Retallack’s co-directed stage production is respectful to that poetic provenance, the action unfolding against two large white rectangles on the floor and wall as if writing itself onto two blank pages.
Its story is (perhaps depressingly) familiar – three young recruits are lured away from the mundanity of small-town life by the apparent possibilities of an army career. Uninspired by working life on the Bristol docks “driving those Mazdas off the container ships / parking them in perfect lines / like headstones in a cemetery,” the army offers the chance of something more: “Raise your sights the brochure said.” And so they did: Taff, Hads and Arthur, three Bristol school-friends turned riflemen in the Sharpe’s regiment, head “off to war, like boys always have.”
In the dead of an Afghan night, the playground battle-games of their childhood turn into something altogether more dangerous:
We called it Afghan roulette.
Every day, more or less.
Going out on the ground
to take our chances
with what was under it.
Each of the three soldiers narrates his own story, Hads (a defiant Alex Stedman) ending up legless in a wheelchair, Taff (a youthful, tragic Peter Edwards) subsumed by PTSD, Arthur (a tortured, howling Phil Dunster) dead. Mann and Rettalack’s direction gently lifts Sheers’ text from page to stage, colouring it with a choreography reminiscent of Mann’s work with Theatre Ad Infinitum, subtle movements reinforcing the spoken word. On stage throughout, the women in the soldiers’ lives – a wife, a mother and a girlfriend – are complicit in the men’s narratives, forming part of the physical ensemble enacting them and often functioning as chorus (both verbally and through movement).
The women’s roles here are fluid but frustrating – there’s a tragic irony in Mann and Retallack’s decision to use them in the literal telling of the action given their opposition to the soldiers’ deployment and heartbreak at their injuries. But with only a couple of exceptions, the women’s relatively limited line count coupled with having to respond to extreme trauma or distress means their speeches often operate at heightened extremes of emotions, with limited character development compared to their male counterparts and lacking the lyricism of the men’s speeches.
Comparison between Taff, Hads and Arthur’s childhood impressions of war as a playground game and the reality of their military service recurs throughout Pink Mist. “Just three friends who’d once linked arms at school” and chanted “who wants to play war?”, the youthful memory of war-games lends itself to performance, “taking the role, tonight, of a Navy SEAL,” and later the “drifting litter of boxes and cans, girls more flesh than dress” that the adventure-seeking Arthur turns away from. Sheers’ language is stoked with danger even in these youthful, pre-war descriptions – beneath the home comforts of firework displays and country lanes lurk explosions, trashed nights out, the ghosts of soldiers-to-be reflected in the recruiting room window.
The game became our way you see…
Friend us on Facebook and you’ll soon see
how quick our profile shots scroll back
from battledress to uniform,
from webbing to sports bag,
from ration pack to lunch box,
from out there to back here.
“Back here” is Bristol – its countryside and its high street, its docklands and its Disney store – of which Arthur in particular gives us glimpses, or maps against his comrades’ absence from it:
Not in the West, that’s for sure.
Not in the Shire or out on Severn Beach
where I used to live.
Not with Lisa either, or with Tom his five-year-old kid.
No, they’ll be out Clevedon, or down on the fields,
taking part in the family fun.
But not Taff.
The potential allusions in Sheers’ text are immense. Lingering behind that Bristol countryside might be the ghosts of Vernon Scannell or Edward Thomas, nature-come-war poets for whom change in a countryside or cityscape, or the absence of a once-familiar trope, often foreshadow the losses of war; “Up on Dundry Hill, under the transmitter / Under the clear night sky” where Arthur watches the last of the planes come into land could be lifted from Thomas’ notebooks. Lingering too is the ghost of Arthur, who might have been modelled on the Elder Pyper in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (another play in which war is played out in verse and against a specific topography), his first-person narrative flowing from present to future perfect as he describes how his comrades will respond to his death. There are flashes too of Anne Carson’s Sad But Great, the war veteran of Red Doc> broken by PTSD, who shares his “ragged eyes pouring / in every direction” with Sheers’ Taff. And Sad But Great was himself Herakles in Carson’s previous almost-war play-come-poem; and Herakles’ lyricism borrowed heavily from Stesichorus, and furthermore a wave of mid-00’s scholarship (cf. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam) that traces the symptoms of PTSD back to Achilles; and so on (theatre) ad infinitum.
All of which allusion-hunting is to say: therein lies the frustrating thing about Pink Mist. As fragments, the soldiers’ accounts are quietly devastating reminders of the individual impacts of war. But in the context of a theme explored so often, and so richly, by so many, Pink Mist sometimes struggles to reach beyond the very personal narratives of its three male protagonists. It seems richly aware of its literary context but fails to quite scale the (poetic or theatrical) heights of a Red Doc> or an Observe the Sons, with no new light shone on Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan, nor really into the false promises and devastating declines of soldiers’ lives; and the limited scope of its female characters is perhaps a missed opportunity. A brief final-act speech by Arthur, where suddenly sound design and choreography are absent as he jumps out of the lyricism of verse and quotes statistics about how many homeless people are veterans, referencing an ex-marine called Ken who sweeps the streets looking for ex-forces personnel, is a sudden reminder of the play’s roots and perhaps a glimpse of how verse and verbatim might have combined to make a more effective whole. Nonetheless, Mann and Retallack’s sharply tuned production brings out the shattering horror of Sheers’ text, and proves a well-honed reminder that one can be sympathetic to the soldier while being opposed to his conflict.
Pink Mist is on at Bush Theatre until 13th February. Click here for tickets.