Bristol Old Vic, Friday July 3rd, 2015
Following the dramatisation of Pink Mist on BBC Radio 4 and its success as Wales Book of the Year 2014, its author was keen to see it staged. While Owen Sheers has achieved acclaim with National Theatre of Wales ground-breaking productions such as The Passion and Mametz, Bristol Old Vic was his choice of theatre for its premiere. (For a critique of the writing, I would direct you to Carl Griffin’s review in Wales Arts Review from June 2013).
Tagged as verse-drama, the book was written in script form but with few staging directions, originally intended like Under Milkwood as a play for voices, dialogue and soliloquy. So how would a theatre production serve to enhance the already powerfully told story that is Pink Mist? The answer is that a sterling cast is directed with a dynamic choreography of movement, light and sound.
The cast comprises Arthur, Taff and Hads, three teenage boys who go to war, and Hads’ mother, and Lisa and Gwen, wife and girlfriend waiting for their safe return. The six actors remain on stage throughout, performing the function of a Greek chorus supporting the main narration when they are not telling their own story. To single one actor out, Bristol Old Vic graduate Phil Dunster who plays Arthur, would be the one. He did a faultless job performing the main narrative role and as the character with most depth, from being the instigator of “Who wants to play war?” to the one who confesses his guilt at stealing rare bird eggs, to philosophising about what motivates a man who finds himself at war – what you’re fighting for is “The man on your left and the man on your right. Forget queen or country, the mission or belief. It’s more about keeping your mates alive. Or avenging the ones who’ve already died.”
The story’s timeline is really a loop, as the earliest point in time depicts all the cast as children in the playground responding to Arthur’s call to play war. All of them buy into the game. The final lines of the play are those words again; ironic now we know the consequences of the game for all of them. Within this loop, the action shifts between past, present and future though the skill in the writing means that you are never uncertain or irritated. You know in Act 1, titled “After Before”, that Hads loses his legs. Hads steps on to an IED and is borne backwards through the air by his fellows to land in his wheel chair.
Balletic movement such as this works to support the text, not distract from it or merely mimic in motion the lines you are hearing. The choreography was unexpectedly stunning and used the space to great effect, both across the extended stage, and vertically where for example the actors climbed onto a prop representing Dundry Hill, or moved in patterns such as when firing guns before falling wounded to the floor; all such movement was also crisply coordinated with the frequent (mostly warzone) sound effects. The set was bare of scenery, and for props there was just a wheelchair, a wooden lounger with a section that could be lifted so it could be used as a hospital bed as well as a mortuary slab, and helmets which the male characters donned for battle scenes but also inventively served as a bird nest and a toilet bowl (for puking).
Pink Mist is a moving drama every young person should see because it addresses the issues of modern warfare that affect not only the combatants but those who have to cope with the damage their dear ones bring home with them. The overall effect on the senses is a powerful one. The language is poetic on the ear, the movement balletic for the eye, and one’s emotions are so roused that in the final scene, you want to shout back at Arthur’s call to play war – “NO!”
If you want to see this production before it finishes on July 11th, you may find there are not many tickets left since it is being uniformly praised. There have been standing ovations for the last two nights at least so let us hope there is a theatre in Wales that will offer residency to perpetuate its run shortly.