Pink Mist, a verse-drama by Owen Sheers, tells the story of three young men who join the army in 2008 and are quickly sent to fight in Afghanistan.
As a piece of writing it is beautiful, doing that hardest of tasks of getting dramatic verse to seem entirely natural. All six characters – the three men, two of their partners and one of their mothers – are on stage at all times and the technical accomplishment of the piece is considerable in this regard. As the ex-servicemen, Phil Dunster, Peter Edwards and Alex Steadman are convincingly masculine with the top-heavy bodies and gaits of military machines. Yet in between scenes, they evaporate back into the liquid dance performances of the cast moving as one, the fluidity of their movements echoing the title of the production. The projections of skylines, whether at sunrise, nightfall or illuminated in the piercing hell of fire, continue further this feeling that ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future’.
Unlike in the film industry that seems to require many of its male stars to take on the chiselled bodies of marines and superheroes, it is unusual to see this pumped up version of masculinity on stage. The straight spines, wide foreheads and army regulation haircuts tells us what we think we know about military men – they look indestructible – yet all of these men, both physically and mentally to different degrees, end up destroyed by their experiences, muscle and strength only encasing their fractured insides.
It is also a version of masculinity we do not see often on the stage because it is to a large degree a working class masculinity – interestingly the last play about war staged in Bristol, Birdsong, focuses on a hero of the Officer classes. The reason given for all three men deciding to sign up is a vague ennui, a sense of a lack of prospects and a yearning to escape the confines of where they grew up. As someone who can genuinely claim to come from a ‘small town’ I found the idea of Bristol as representing this trope slightly jarring, but in retrospect anywhere – be it part of London or deepest Devon – can have this effect on its sons and daughters if the future (jobs, prospects) on offer there is non-existent.
The other perspective given which is usually under-represented is that of women isolated and dislocated by their partners’ or son’s choice in joining the army. The voice of army wives and families we most frequently see is that of the Military Wives singing the national anthem at Aintree or raising money for Help For Heroes. It is assumed that these women are unerringly supportive of their men’s choices, many of them living and raising children on military bases. The idea of partners having a much more complicated relationship with the choice to go to war – especially if the decision to sign up occurred after the relationship started – is a more problematic, and perhaps more realistic, portrayal of what those left at home feel towards those in combat uniforms.
The stories of the female characters could have easily been attended too in more detail. The character of Hads’ mother, played by Zara Ramm was acted excellently, but unfortunately not given anywhere near enough time to tell her story. Equally, the idea that a man, Hads, said to be half-Somali (a strongly Muslim community in Bristol) would sign up as easily as the other two white Englishmen to join the British army at a time when they were already engaged in a war slaughtering Muslims in the middle east, was not explained or even addressed in the text.
The narrative is proudly set in Bristol, peppered with references to Banksy, Massive Attack, Portishead and the Clifton suspension bridge. For those familiar with the city, the references make the fictional stories sound like news reports, but it would be interesting to see how this was received by an audience for whom the words Dundry Hill meant nothing. “This is a West Country play!” the production seems to be shouting, and it tries as hard as Laurie Lee to evoke the feeling of a place. In most ways it succeeds but the West Country accents of the cast at times feel a little too stressed, as though already anticipating its reception outside of the South West. Of all the people you meet in Bristol and the wider South West, rarely do you actually hear such broad vowels as these.
The emotiveness of the subject matter and the skill of the cast gives the piece a power, but having reflected on it, the final twist – for me – relies too strongly on a belief in the afterlife, in consciousness after death and a surrender to the understandable but futile desire of the living to play god and put words into the mouths of the dead.