War and Conflict
Theatre of war
This article is from 2008.
Five years on from the invasion of Iraq themes of war and conflict continue to provide inspiration for theatre makers, as David Laing discovers
There’s always a profit to be made from war. The black market proved lucrative during World War II for the sale of rationed chocolate, coffee and cigarettes, while oil companies such as Halliburton have been kept ticking over nicely by the recent conflicts in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the war on terror has stretched its influence far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, weaving itself into global cultural history and becoming the basis for much of the most powerful contemporary art.
The theme of war pervades a range of shows at this year’s Fringe, from drama based on the black box recordings of real-life aeroplane emergencies, to the diaries of a British Army captain in World War I and verbatim accounts of soldiers fighting in the war on terror, as well as harrowing accounts of loved ones left behind.
Motherland is based on interviews conducted with the wives of servicemen, as the play’s creator Steve Gilroy explains. ‘As I started to investigate the reported deaths and casualties of servicemen on local news reports, I was struck by the disproportionate amount of fatalities and casualties from the North East,’ he says. The impact of a foreign war on those left at home is the driving force behind Gilroy’s work. ‘All the words are spoken by the women we interviewed and it really takes you on their journey. As the piece evolved they talked profoundly about war and its impact on their lives, and it’s powerful, not because of the sensational details but because of the really big emotional moments.’
Following the recent death of Sarah Bryant, the first British servicewoman to be killed in Afghanistan, Gilroy’s work has particular resonance; one of the women Gilroy interviewed was Elsie Manning, mother of Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliot, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
Elsewhere on the Fringe, Badac Theatre’s promenade work The Factory returns us to the Holocaust in its exploration of the human impact of war. As the piece is staged in a cramped, newly discovered space beneath the Pleasance, Steve Lambert, the co-founder of Badac, was keen to let the surroundings influence his work. ‘The different spaces allowed us to take the audience through the journey,’ he says. ‘From the very first moment of entering the crematorium building, going down into the gas chamber, taking them through the process that the victims went through, we’re using the environment to take the people through an actual victim’s journey towards death.’
Lambert, who insists that theatre is about the events that ignite us, is quick to point out the violent aspects of humanity, as well as drawing parallels between the Nazi control exerted over the Jews, and the gradual erosion of freedoms since 9/11. ‘One of the worries of places like Guantanamo Bay is where they lead to. If we accept them, if we say those places are all right, then we move the barrier towards more extreme treatment of prisoners. The Holocaust is the extreme, but we ignored genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, where people were killed systematically and it isn’t that far removed, so if you bring images of the Holocaust alive, it gives people something to connect to.’
Back in the present day, and 24-hour news coverage since the Twin Tower attacks has helped increase our general awareness of war activity. It’s a phenomenon not lost on Bob Berger, the playwright behind Charlie Victor Romeo, which takes black box recordings of real-life air emergencies as its basis.
Berger, a former news cameraman, is keen to expose audiences to the reality of crisis situations. ‘We want to present something that’s extremely realistic, like seeing somebody who came back from Iraq wounded. That’s where the strength of the play is, showing something outside of normal experience – what happens at the front of an aeroplane during a crisis.’
Stressing the cultural bond that America and Britain have shared since 2001, Berger also highlights the first person attachment many people have to the reality of conflict. ‘A huge percentage of people in the UK have a connection in some way to the Battle of Britain, but the Bomber Harris of Dambusters is vastly different to the reality. What we allow ourselves to imagine about those heroes and what life was actually like under that kind of pressure are so different – that’s what I’m trying to show.’
Motherland, Underbelly, 0844 545 8252, 2-24 Aug (not 11), 7.05pm, £9–£10 (£8–£9). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £6; The Factory, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 1-24 Aug (not 12), times vary, £9.50 (£8); Charlie Victor Romeo, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 0844 545 8252, 2–25 Aug (not 12), 7.40pm, £12–£14.50 (£10.50–£13). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £8.