New Wolsey Theatre play Pink Mist tackles soldiers facing life on civvy street
- Credit: Photo by Mark Douet
Soldiers have always had a hard time coming back from war. Settling down to civilian life can be lonely and isolating, particularly if they enjoyed the camaraderie of life in a regiment, but there is also the spectre of battle fatigue and mental illness which can also make the return to ordinary life difficult.
Playwright and poet Owen Sheers has interviewed more than 60 veterans about their journey back into society - the result is a new play Pink Mist, a verse drama, which looks at the serious battle that begins once a soldier has finished fighting in the front lines and has been demobbed.
Owen says the phenomenon is nothing new but thankfully it is now recognised and can be treated. “I think a lot of schools in the 1920s and ‘30s were staffed by men suffering from the effects of the First World War and the same thing happened again during the 1950s as men came to terms with what they saw and experienced during the Second World War.”
He brings a verse drama Pink Mist to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from February 7 to 9.
Owen’s play started life as a commission for BBC Radio 4 and was so well received that he set about collaborating with the Bristol Old Vic to turn it into a stage play.
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“Pink Mist is a piece of theatre that grew through ideas of voice. It began with listening to the voices of recently wounded service personnel and their families. It then discovered its rhythm and lyric demotic through being written for that medium of voice: radio. Finally it appropriated the musical voice of Bristol, the city where that radio play was originally commissioned and recorded.”
But, many of the original interviews came from an earlier site-specific production called The Two Worlds of Charlie F which was a commission from the National Theatre of Wales and performed in Port Talbot. “That project was quite unique because that was designed as a recovery project as much as it was also a piece of theatre. The simple idea was to create a play based on recently wounded service personnel, both psychologically and physically, and have as many as we could actually in the cast.
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“That transferred to Theatre Royal Haymarket and eventually went on a tour of the UK and Canada with these soldiers who had never acted before. They gave a 125 shows in total which was amazing.
“So when the BBC approached me about creating a drama that had a relationship with poetry I said, quite unusually, that I wanted to go back and explore that area in greater depth because I felt I had more to say.
“Although it wasn’t verbatim theatre it was very important that those stories told on stage closely echoed the real events and the way that the soldiers spoke about them.
“So I returned to those original interviews, I did some additional interviews and conducted more research and I found myself becoming caught up in the women’s stories and the women’s voices.
“The women in the soldiers lives are the ones on the front line in civilian life and are often the ones who have to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.”
For Pink Mist he has created a verse drama which explores the post-army lives of three squaddies – Arthur, Hads and Taff – three fictional soldiers who are struggling to move from an environment of violence to a low-key domestic life where they are not going to be ambushed on their way to work.
“I was struck by what I learned on Charlie F that any great conflict will always involve the exploitation of youth – Britain is the only western country where you can join the army as a child soldier. You can’t do that in the EU or in the United States – and there was a strong note in the interviews I conducted that these recruits felt that they were leaving their old life rather than joining the army. So I look at what they were expecting and what attracted them. Was it the camaraderie? Is it a sense of identity or a sense of belonging which isn’t being satisfied in everyday life?
“The characters of Pink Mist, with the exception of Ken, are my inventions. Many of their experiences, however, are echoes of real events experienced by those I interviewed for my research.”
He says that the evening is not a depressing one. There is plenty of humour as we witness the soldiers form tight bonds of friendship but these relationships are also the very thing which gives the play its emotional heart.
Owen says: “I hope, in writing Pink Mist, I’ve managed to protect the authenticity of their witness, while also heightening their voices in such a way that their stories might continue to resonate long after an audience has left the theatre.”
Pink Mist, by Owen Sheers, a verse drama, is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from February 7 to 9.
Suffering and Disaster, Without Much Glory: The British Army in Afghanistan: a talk by Dr John Greenacre from the University of Suffolk is at the theatre on Feb 8 at 5.30pm.