Review: ‘Pink Mist’

Pink Mist, previously showing at the Oxford Playhouse, is a physical, rhythmical exploration of three intertwining stories of young men who, in different ways, never return from war in Afghanistan. The production was in many ways simplistic, with a small cast and a bare stage, but was made remarkable by the truth of the story it told and the emotive physicality of the ensemble.

This production opens with Arthur, Taff and Hads (Phil Dunster, Peter Edwards and Alex Stedman) — boys, not men — enjoying bonfire night, where the sounds of rockets and fireworks are disturbingly similar to the whizzing bangs of artillery in modern battle. In his wheelchair, Hads is playing a Call of Duty style game, and his immersion is enacted by the ensemble dropping dead around him. This theme of ‘playing war’ is a well-conceived thread running through this production — from playground, to console games, to reality.

Pink Mist 2017. Photo by Mark Douet _80A2195.jpg
© Mark Douet

The tight physical ensemble of six have been directed by John Retallack and George Mann to have a regimented mechanicalism, contrasting with moments of beautiful, contemporary dance fluidity which brought their memories of war to life. The perfect synchronisation of their choreography conjured not only a sense of militarised uniformity, but also reflected the script’s rhythm and rhyme. Owen Sheers’ writing has moments of startling clarity, and like the direction, mixes contrasts: small details of a small town, the mundanity of a Bristol street, versus the explosive violence of war and the gut-wrenching emotions of losing someone you love. The Observer’s Kate Kellaway has argued that Pink Mist should be studied in schools alongside Wilfred Owen, and I’m inclined to agree — textually, it has a great deal of value in conveying modern warfare with a nod to the classic poets of a century ago. But on occasion, the cast’s performance risked detracting from the emotion within the words, in the same way that actors can occasionally perform the poetry and sounds of Shakespeare more than the emotions and stories of the language itself. At times they were almost rapping, which was most likely unavoidable with the way that Sheers has constructed the lines. It’s possible it was even intentional to tie into the notion of the role of the soldier being performative, but I still felt it as a distraction when I wanted to tie myself fully into the story I was being told in that moment.

The set was sparse — a wheelchair for Hads, and a wooden sun lounger which doubled as a hospital bed and a coffin. The cast created the scenery, in conjunction with some simple, effective lighting designed by Peter Harrison. A bright amber backdrop which glowed with intense Afghan heat, combined with Arthur and Taff’s description of the smell of ‘burning… and shit… burning shit’, created an incredibly evocative sense of place. Sound (designed by Jon Nicholls) was also used to great effect, with pulsing dubstep mingling with the quick-fire of rifle shots in the minds of the traumatised Taff when he comes home.

One particularly moving moment was the memory of how Hads ends up as an amputee. The ensemble carried him in one smooth movement from the moment of the IED impact straight into his wheelchair, with his mum gently removing his heavy helmet, showing how instantly a young boy is resigned to a life of disability. Another was the attack on a farmhouse by Taff and his squadron, with the ensemble physicalising a huge piece of shrapnel becoming embedded into the chest of a two year old girl. We also eventually learned the meaning of ‘pink mist’: when a person is directly hit by a rocket or an IED, they are totally and utterly eviscerated into particles – a cloud, where a person once stood.

Pink Mist 2017. Photo by Mark Douet _31B0458.jpg
© Mark Douet

This is an important piece of theatre, exploring not only the reality of war, but also the rippling aftershocks — on the soldiers themselves, and on their parents, girlfriends, and children. The dead return somewhat glorified and unchanged in a flag-draped coffin, but the survivors are left behind and forgotten. The mental illness and PTSD that soldiers sometimes suffer can result in violence, crime, and homelessness: parentless children, childless parents, and abused partners. This script was developed from interviews with real service personnel, which made this performance even harder to watch. It all stemmed from the truth of experience.

By the end it was clear that the boys, although they had different reasons for signing up, treated the process as ‘playing the game of war’ — adopting an avatar of an idealised self, going to training camp, beefing up, become ‘someone’, impressing their friends, and charging into battle. But these new selves were all too transient, and dissipated like the friends they saw becoming that pink mist.

Justine Malone

For more productions at the Oxford Playhouse, please visit their website.

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