Daily Archives: August 12, 2008

In Conflict, Motherland, The Caravan

In Conflict
4 stars ****
Assembly Rooms (Venue 3)
4 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)
The Caravan
4 stars ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

ON BOTH SIDES OF the Atlantic, the escalators of social mobility have slowed to a snail’s pace over the last two decades.  We no longer have many young working-class playwrights emerging, to dramatise life as they see it; which is perhaps why verbatim drama has become so important, as a way of giving a voice to millions of people whose experience might otherwise remain largely unheard – not least on the subject of war and peace, and of how it feels to be an ordinary soldier in these times.

Temple Theater of Philadelphia’s In Conflict, at the Assembly Rooms, is a show that occupies precisely the same territory as the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, and is a blood brother of British shows like Deep Cut and Motherland, playing on this year’s Fringe.  Based on a powerful book of interviews by New York journalist Yvonne Latty, this compelling 100-minute show offers brief but utterly vivid and convincing sketches of 17 US servicemen and women with experience of the war in Iraq.  The huge range of characters they represent – from Russian migrant in New York to Native American in Arizona – comes as a passionate reminder of the huge diversity of America itself; and it also enables the expression of every shade of opinion about the war, from pride and unquestioning commitment, through anger on behalf of troops not given the tools to complete a difficult job, to furious opposition.

In Conflict is not always an easy show to watch, and its pace sometimes flags slightly.   But the quality of the acting, from this young university company, is simply breathtaking; and this is a show that commands attention from everyone who cares about the true story of the Iraq War, and about the real life of ordinary US  citizens today, in the world’s wounded superpower.

If I could make one small wish, for the women whose experiences make up the text of Motherland, it’s that they could all be scooped up and brought along to the next performance of In Conflict; at least then they would know just how much they are not alone, in their pain, trauma and grief.  Created at Live Theatre in Newcastle by writer/director Steve Gilroy, Motherland is based entirely on verbatim interviews with the mothers, wives and sisters of 21st century British soldiers, both those still living, and those who have died in the recent wars.

The achievement of this interwoven series of monologues and duologues is twofold.  First, it manages, in the space of just 80 minutes, to create a series of thoroughly memorable characters, strong women of Tyneside and the North East who nonetheless sometimes find themselves broken by the deaths of their sons and daughters, and by the lack of honesty and basic courtesy with which they are often treated.  And secondly, it somehow manages to combine a deep sense of tragedy with a powerful sense of humour, of the joy and laughter of family life that keeps these women going under such difficult circumstances.   All of this is brilliantly portrayed by a memorable company of four actresses, each one glowing with the kind of ordinary, lifeworn beauty we too often ignore.  These women are only mothers, as they would say themselves; but the force of their love and anger is unforgettable.

In Look Left Look Right Theatre Company’s The Caravan, at Pleasance Courtyard, the trauma suffered by ordinary working people has nothing to do with war, but everything to do with climate change, with public services unable to respond to crisis, and with out greedy insistence on continuing to build in places where the water is almost certain to rise.  Packed for half an hour into a tiny caravan outside the Pleasance Grand, an audience of six or so shares a cup of tea and a biscuit with about a dozen real-life characters whose lives were changed forever by last year’s floods in Humberside and central England, which have left some 10,000 people still living in caravans like this.

The setting is vividly cramped and dampish, haunted by what one character calls a faint smell of depression; the four actors are superb, and the material brilliantly chosen, by co-directors Mimi Poskitt and Ben Freedman, to demonstrate the range of people whose lives were devastated by these floods.  And like the British and American victims of war, their primary feeling is one of betrayal; of living in a system  which they believed would care for them, and which has failed to live up to its own best ideals.

Joyce McMillan
In Conflict and The Caravan until 25 August, Motherland until 24 August.
pp. 206, 217, 190