A public experiment about present day soldiering
In 1998, the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh-based theatre company The Grassmarket Project devised and directed SOLDIERS. The production was developed according to Jeremy Weller’s unique working method, which invites marginalised individuals to recount a selection of their real-life experiences on a public stage.
SOLDIERS was according to the work’s subtitle an investigation into what happens to a man when he kills?. The production involved an Ex Scots-Guard, who had served in Northern Ireland during the 70ies, a Croatian General and female Croatian Soldier who had both served during the recent Bosnian Conflict, a freelance war journalist from Britain as well as two support-actors. It had been hailed by the press as ‘the most striking example of theatrical authenticity’ and been awarded a Scotsman Fringe First Award, when the production folded unexpectedly due to half of the cast refusing to appear on stage. Rumors emerged quickly in the press, that at the core of this refusal lay the Bosnian General who was allegedly being looked for by the International War Tribunal at The Hague. What followed was an extensive and revealing debate in the British national press about the moral implications of such work as well as about the role of theatre in our society.
This paper discusses SOLDIERS as an artistic, social and cultural activity. It draws upon ethnographic data gathered during the production and performance process and shows the work’s intrinsic danger and potential, as well as a critical reflection upon the aftermath of the production.
A Public Experiment about Present Day Soldiering
by Katja Riek
Premiered on 11 th August 1998 as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the city’s Traverse Theatre, SOLDIERS was the 7 th award-winning production by Edinburgh- based theatre-maker Jeremy Weller. Prior to SOLDIERS, the Artistic Director of The Grassmarket Project (GMP) – named after an inner-city area comprising a series of facilities for the homeless – attracted much critical acclaim with a series of controversial productions, during which marginalised individuals recounted on a public stage a selection of their often harrowing real-life experiences. Since the company’s foundation in 1989, its idiosyncratic working method has resulted in collaborations with the homeless, young offenders, mentally ill women, striptease dancers, the aged, young people at risk, asylum seekers, individuals whose family members died in police custody and, more recently, street-children and teenage gang members. As the undoubtedly most controversial GMP production to date, SOLDIERS occupies a unique position within the company’s busy history. Based upon ethnographic research conducted during the workshop-rehearsal, performance and post-performance stages of that particular project, this article documents SOLDIERS and its legacy.
The idea of devising a production involving soldiers had been conceived five years earlier in 1993 during rehearsal workshops for the company’s classic MAD1. As Weller recounts, one of the male participants, an ex-soldier, suddenly interrupted a workshop, which focussed on participating women recounting personal experiences of mental illness, by bursting into a heart-breaking confessional account of the madness he had witnessed and experienced during the Gulf War:
He described what he had witnessed from his fellow soldiers: the rape of women, the killing of suspected terrorists etc. He then went on to describe all these men as ‘real nice guys, well brought up – they had just gone mad’. And pointing at me and other members of the company, he said: ‘You would do it, and you, and you!’. He then went on to describe how these killers and rapists had left the army and gone on to become double glazing salesmen or long distance lorry drivers and eventually doting granddads. It was easy, he said ‘You just don’t feel anything anymore’.
Five years on, Weller embarked on his theatrical exploration of ‘What happens to a
man when he kills’3.
At a time when the media confronted us all with multiple images and reports from the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya, Weller’s production SOLDIERS hoped to take audiences to the heart of selected moments prototypical of such conflicts. Employing his usual working method, Weller brought audiences face to face with a selection of real-life soldiers who had participated in or witnessed combat killings. Production participants were invited to recount their personal experiences on a public stage and thereby contribute to a facilitated human encounter between two social groups usually isolated from each other. A largely middle-class audience, who pays for this unusual and apparently safe human encounter4 would thus by means of the production gain a unique and powerful insight into how individuals may be affected by combat killings. And, if the work was to be at its best, audience members would find themselves confront their own dark sides and as a result pass more informed judgements on the individuals on stage.
THE PRODUCTION PARTICIPANTS
With these intentions in mind, Weller and the GMP set out to find suitable production participants via two of the company’s frequently employed recruitment methods: personal invitation and public advertising.
Adverts in the daily newspaper The Sun, the Glasgow Evening Times, the European edition of The Guardian and the monthly magazine Soldiers led to a series of replies by (ex)-soldiers from Britain and further afield. A number of meetings and interviews were being set up with a variety of applicants before two ex-Scotsguards with combat experience in Northern Ireland were selected as cast members. The choice was made on the grounds of incurred travel and accommodation cost, the applicants’ English language skills and the dramatic potential inherent in the individuals and their experiences.
Frank, a Glasgow taxi-driver and black belt in Karate, dresses in immaculate black jeans, Zamberlain boots, tartan shirts and a black bomber jacket. His head is covered with a baseball cap featuring the Scotsguards logo. At about 45 years of age, of significant height and military posture, Frank radiates self-control and alertness. Highly reliable, courteous and punctual throughout the production process, he gives the project a touch of professionalism. Asked about whether his soldiering experience in the Northern Ireland of the 70s had any long-term effects on him or his post-army life, he denies any connections. As the workshops move on, however, it emerges that he has difficulties trusting people and continues to avoid open windows. And, as he is asked to recount the situation in which a young guy from his battalion got ambushed whilst on patrol, he admits to having experienced multiple flashbacks regarding this particular event. Under Frank’s eyes, his comrade lay dying on the streets of Armagh, whilst catholic women and children emerged from the surrounding houses showering the body with abuse. Recollecting that very moment, Frank knows that had he not been trained never to open fire on civilians, the scene could have easily turned into a massacre and he into a killer of so-called innocent civilians. After two months of almost daily recollection during workshops and performances, Frank had become aware of just how much his experiences in Northern Ireland did affect his life; whilst they may never have taken control, they have substantially shaped who he his views and behavior.
The second ex-soldier, turned GMP participant, was also Ex-British Army with a service record in Northern Ireland. Like Frank, Jim5, a young man in his mid thirties, also bore witness to the killing of one of his comrades. On that particular day, Jim had been sitting next to his friend as the mortar suddenly ripped him apart. Seconds after the attack, Jim took a picture of the outcome: it fills the first page of his personal photo-album and shows the torso of a man. His legs, scrotum and buttocks have been blown off and his guts are hanging out. The rest of the body seems untouched. The man’s right arm and hand rest fully clothed amongst the ruptured intestines.
Ever since this event, Jim has been suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He experiences severe nightmares and flashbacks and can no longer control his temper. He has been discharged from the army and relies upon medication to get him through the days. His marriage has broken up and he has turned to alcohol. Asked about the effects his service in Northern Ireland has had upon his later life, Jim remains adamant: his former employer, the British army, has been negligent by not preparing him adequately for the horrors of active combat.
As the production moved into its workshop/rehearsal phase, Jim broke off any contact with the GMP; his story and experiences have, however, been worked into the production and were acted out by a so-called support actor (David Hatcher).
Like most support-actors involved with the GMP, David completed a one-year college acting course, but does not manage to make a living through performing. A roughly the same age as John, he runs a bric-a- brac shop in a slightly dubious area of Edinburgh. In pursuit of his dream – becoming a famous actor – he also does some casual extra work for film and TV. An outspoken womanizer of slightly rough appearance, he also claims to have been convicted of accidentally shooting one of his ex-girlfriends. David has thus gained his own insights into and experiences of violence and killing. Combined with his previous stage appearance as the soldier in MAD, he is, on Weller’s terms, suitably qualified to portray Jim’s experiences on stage.
In the course of the production process, David is always punctual and eager to give his utmost during improvisations and scenes. Contrary to his ascribed role (that of a support-actor), however, his general behavior was largely self-centered and sometimes even detrimental to the atmosphere amongst the cast and production team. His motive for participation was simple – he hoped that his appearance in a reputable venue would provide a springboard into a full-time acting career.
The remaining four cast members had been recruited via personal contact. Jane, an internationally acclaimed war correspondent6 agreed to participate in the project after having met Weller through a mutual friend earlier in 1998. Originally from Canada, she holds a degree in economics and film studies, has been a researcher for the UN and, for the past decade a London based freelance war journalist and documentary filmmaker producing work for Channel 4, ZDF in Germany, NHK in Japan, CBC inCanada and the BBC. During those years her work has taken her to Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Somalia and Sudan, and she has found herself exposed to the horrors of war, combat and killing many times:
She has seen atrocities committed and been in a truck with her driver, when he was suddenly blown up by a rocket next to her. More recently she’s been held captive in Ethiopia and been physically and sexually abused by her guards.
In her mid thirties and fit and healthy looking, Jane harbors a catalogue of recurring nightmares in which the horrors she has witnessed are being inflicted upon her. When looking her in the eye you are confronted with an empty glare that seems to vanish into the distance. She continues to live the effects of the conflicts she has covered and that have emotionally drained her.
On embarking upon the GMP project, Jane feels akin to Weller and his desire to find out more about the dark aspects of human nature. She is intrigued by his idea of a collaborative work, in which her life provides the artistic framework for the experiences of the participating soldiers. On her arrival in Edinburgh she was asked by a fellow journalist from the Scotsman, how she managed to cope with the horror of her experiences. She stated:
I have to kind of conveniently forget episodes like that [her being physically abused by masked men in Ethiopia], it’s a way of dealing with it, like this play is a way of coping with it.
Filled with personal and professional expectations, Jane eventually found herself disappointed in Weller and the project. Against his initial promises, Weller showed in fact little interest in Jane’s experiences and the portrayal of her life. Instead she was cast almost exclusively as a structural link, which tied the piece together: working on a documentary about the human disposition for violence, Jane was in a position to have a series of encounters with the participating soldiers and their experiences. The brave, dedicated and independently successful woman was reduced to a lonely, if attractive female journalist, who wished she could reverse her career and swap journalism for a happy family life.
It was through Jane’s initial enthusiasm for the project, however, that two further participants were found. Her cousin and former babysitter Nick and his girlfriend Ljuba, both on leave from the Croatian army, joined the production just three weeks before the premier.
Born in British Columbia to Croatian parents and trained by the Canadian army, NICK has served in the Foreign Legion prior to his decision to volunteer as a training commander for the Bosnian Federation Army in the fight against the Serbs. He is in his early fifties, tall and fit and has an aura of power and womanizing. He has a distinct sense of humor and is able to provide first hand experiences from the raging Balkan conflict. He admits to having killed many times with his own hands, has witnessed infinite numbers of killings and ordered others to participate in them. Asked during a TV interview about his motives for joining the project, he stated:
I can’t figure it out either. I guess the guy [he points at Weller] conned me here. He’s a smooth silver-tongued devil. I was on holiday and my cousin phoned me up. I said ‘let’s give her a crack’.
As part of the production he provided several personal accounts covering different
aspects of war and killing. Amongst them was the story of his twin-brother, who spent 15 months in Manjaca, the Serbian Prisoner of War Camp, we should be familiar with due to its extensive news-coverage.
The sheer horror and number of the war experiences that Nick has accumulated during the Balkan conflict provided him with a heightened respect and authority throughout the production process. Recognizably enjoying the awe and seriousness with which Frank, David and Weller listen to his experiences, and undoubtedly making the most of his charm in respect to the women involved, Nick was an altogether positive influence during the workshop rehearsal process. It was not until the production was to go public, that he began to show signs of discomfort and insecurity and eventually used his charisma to bring about a dramatic twist in the course of the project.
Ljuba, an accountant turned ex-soldier from the HVO and a committed catholic is Nick’s Bosnian girlfriend. A quiet and gentle woman, whose war experiences have taught her what humankind is capable of – good and bad –, she radiates a combination of warmth and sad emptiness. Since her English is not up to long speeches or dialogue, her stage appearance is largely limited to her physical presence.
In contrast to Ljuba, Andrew10 is a bubbly and energetic, almost boyish thirty-year old father of two. He is brought in by Jeremy as a second support-actor and is keen to point out, that he has had experiences of civil wars, too:
I was in Spain once as a kid with my parents. Our bus got hijacked by the ETA. They took a man and a woman of the bus, shot the man and released the woman. It was great. Well, it wasn’t really. It was exciting. When I hear all this stuff [the experiences of Frank and Joseph] – I thought I’ve had a pretty boring life, but then this comes back to me…
A much more gentle and innocent man than David, Andrew gets the part of Jane’s boyfriend, who has been scripted to have little understanding for her career, but would like her to settle down with him and start a family.
A mere week before the premiere, Andrew was admitted to hospital with a leg injury, and his part ended up being played by TONY, a black office worker in his twenties, who didn’t mind giving fame a crack, when Jeremy spotted him on the streets.
With a final cast of six, five of whom have never trodden the boards before, SOLDIERS opens to an almost full house at the most prestigious theatre venue during the 1998 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Throughout its run, SOLDIERS was unanimously criticized for its lack of theatrical professionalism: long gaps between scenes, technical fumblings, voice projection difficulties and poor spatial awareness on behalf of the performers have been as gibbeted as the lack of a coherent and believable dramatic structure. Regardless of the critique of such major shortcomings, however, the majority of critics heralded the production’s emotional power, particularly with regards to the individual soldiers’ reminiscing monologues:
Within the loose framework of Jane’s attempts to interview the veterans and draw out their memories, these players produce a series of stunning monologues (…), that manage to be both more shockingly raw and direct, and more analytically satisfying, than most attempts to get to grips with the subject of war, its horror and its strange appeal.
Whilst most papers were swaying back and forth between attacking the production as a failed piece of dramatic art and commending its authenticity and emotional power, the Edinburgh based Scotsman awarded the GMP an uncompromising Fringe First branding SOLDIERS “an example of the very best in new drama”13.
Four years down the line, little remains of the production itself. A script has never existed, and a video recording never been made. Apart from the media coverage, SOLDIERS managed to leave its trace in only one publication, and in that it is being remembered more for its dramatic downfall than the production itself.
In his book In Yer Face Theatre, Aleks Sierz briefly mentions SOLDIERS as part of a series of examples for contemporary British plays concerned with issues of maleness. Instead of elaborating on the production’s relationship with this issue, however, Sierz provides his reader with a quick reminder only of the unusual turn the production took “when one performer – a Bosnian militiaman – fled after he was recognized onstage and accused of war crimes.”14
The mentioned occasion was possibly not only a unique occurrence within the theatrical world, but it also sparked off a series of newspaper articles greater in number than those the production had managed to attract during its short run.
Two nights prior to the performers’ walk out Nick did indeed tell me that he was furious about The Independent printing his full name in a review. Ever since his arrival in Edinburgh, he had stated that under no circumstances did he want his surname mentioned to anyone. Someone in the GMP had obviously breached that promise.
A few days prior to this occurrence Nick and Weller had agreed to appear on a live broadcast of the BBC2 arts review program Edinburgh Nights and the show was scheduled for that very night.
Intentionally, the program was to provide a comparative review of Weller’s SOLDIERS and Guy Masterson’s A Soldier’s Song15 – a one man show, which was running parallel at the time and consisted of a straight forward theatrical adaptation of Ken Lukowiak’s testimonial novel about his combat experiences on the Falklands. Author and ex-soldier turned journalist Lukowiak was present to defend his work.
After an initial screening of extracts from both productions, presenter Marc Lamarr invited Lukowiak to express his opinions on Weller’s play and this is where the focus of the program shifted. As Lukowiak spoke as a journalist who had reported from Mostar for the Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day Magazine, the focus of discussion shifted away from artistic and theatrical issues towards Nick’s personal history and theatre ethics:
Marc Lamar (ML): Ken Lukowiak who served in the Falklands and who is the author of A Soldier’s Song - I know you have a lot of problems with the way that SOLDIERS is presented. Ken Lukowiak (KL): Yeah. You know, straight to your face Nick, I have an awful, awful trouble , because I know that you were a major with the HVO during the war. Nick (N): Not the HVO - Federation Army, buddy. (…) KL: Fine. You were in the HVO. Now, (…) my first visit to Mostar was in 1994. N: 1994? When the war was over more or less, yeah? KL: No, I’m sorry, (…) that was the height of the Bosnian Muslim war. Now, my struggle here is with the HVO. I don’t know Sir, I believe that you were serving in the top of the country, that you weren’t in Mostar... ML: But Ken, are you making a moral judgement (…) that this man shouldn’t be in a play because he was on the wrong side in the war? KL: Yes I am making..., as Nick pointed out, you’re always gonna get one story from here one story from there... Jeremy Weller: That’s the point of the play though. To get several different perspectives! KL: The HVO during the Bosnian war were responsible for the massacre, the rape, the internment, the torture and the ethnic cleansing... N: I would say, that what you say is a complete fallacy... KL: ...of thousands of people. (…) If you’re a Croat then live in Croatia! N: You my friend don’t know the history. You’re teaching people pop-history! ML: You are judging Nick not knowing what his actions were during that war, which is going a bit far! (…) N: You, my friend, don’t know the whole story. KL: I know the whole story in the sense of indiscriminate shelling on women and children... Jeremy! You really do not know what you’ve done here my friend!! (…) A HVO general in this country... SM: This really isn’t the place... (…) You made your point and you made your point Nick and I think at least we’ve proved that both plays are very well worth seeing.16
This event in combination with the publication of his full name did indeed cause Nick’s walk-out.
Instantly aware of the irrevocable financial consequences of this coup, the Traverse’s
Artistic Director and Weller decided to issue a somewhat palliative press-release that
would hopefully put a full-stop to this uncomfortable episode.
Just what you don’t need when you have just won a Scotsman Fringe First – your leading man gets whisked off to Bosnia. The Grassmarket Project’s performances of Soldiers at the Traverse have now had to be cancelled after ‘Nick’, a general in the Bosnian Federation Army, was ‘asked’ to return to the country to resume command of his 50,000 troops.17
As journalists confirmed a link between Nick and the Tomislavgrad Brigade of the HVO, the GMP soon found itself at the heart of a public debate about the morals and ethics underlying its controversial work.
Voices emerged claiming that Nick had left the project and Edinburgh in order to avoid prosecution by The Hague. A claim, that could not be verified to date. Aghast by the potential truth value in this allegation, journalists began to question the integrity of Weller’s research work as well as the project’s underlying morale. Had Weller been aware of his participant’s unethical past when casting him? Would he have cast him, had he known? Was it at all appropriate, knowingly or not, to bestow a potentially violent and, as far as most people’s opinions would be concerned, amoral individual with a public platform to express his views?
Since its foundation in 1989, Weller’s company, has developed a reputation of providing a platform for those people in society, whose voices are only rarely heard. Prior to SOLDIERS, women in isolation, street-children, immigrants, youth at risk, the aged, prostitutes, the mentally ill, striptease dancers, young offenders and the homeless, have all, as part of a GMP production, shared a selection of their experiences with public audiences.
Prior to SOLDIERS the validity of the public exposure of such voices had never been questioned. By exposing the experiences, views and opinions of a suspected war criminal, Weller had obviously touched upon a taboo. Whilst in the past nobody had taken offence at the public exposure of the racist and neo-fascist views expressed by some of the participants in BAD18, Nick’s stage appearance seemed a different matter:
There is a responsibility to the men, women and children who lost their lives in Bosnia to tell the truth about the war. (…) To allow a man like Glasnovic to recount his experiences without challenge was shameful and an insult to the dead.19
Lukowiak’s view is honorable and responsible. In the light of the severity of the topic at hand, it surely is of fundamental importance to find out what exactly happened during these years of the Balkan conflict. Any lopsided interpretation of the events would not only distort history, but it would also do injustice to those whose version of events has not been accounted for.
It has, however, never been the intention of SOLDIERS to provide a historically accurate picture of the Balkan war. Like all GMP productions, SOLDIERS had the basic intention to create a situation in which marginalized voices can be uttered and simultaneously heard by the mainstream of our society. SOLDIERS was a collage of individual experiential accounts about war and killing. Not striving for historical accuracy it was no political interpretation of the War over Yugoslavia or of the Northern Ireland Conflict for that matter. The reminiscences, as they have been presented by Nick, Frank and Ljuba, were highly personalized accounts of some of their real-life experiences, and –for them- they manifested the truth.
Accrediting the value in Lukowiak’s plea for truth and balanced investigation, Weller stated:
In an ideal world I would have had a Serb, a Croat, and a Muslim on stage, but we do not live in an ideal world.20
Weller had, however, no realistic option of presenting representatives of the three sides involved in the Balkan conflict. Working with individuals, who were still immersed in existing conflicts a more balanced production, as suggested by Lukowiak, would have almost certainly led to real violence amongst the cast. Even as the situation stood, Nick had asked for plain-clothed security guards to be placed amongst the audience in case of any Serbs attending the performance. And, just in case he needed to fend for himself, he swapped night after night the hired stage gun for a real pistol.
Irrespective of these concerns, however, the question still remains: should Weller have refrained from presenting Nick’s voice, on the grounds that he had nobody representing the two other sides involved in the conflict?
In her article ‘Dramatic Revelation of the Horrors of Ethnic Cleansing’, JoyceMcMillan made a passionate plea in favor of Weller’s casting:
What I felt, at the time, was a sense of relief, that Weller’s show was not going to evade the fact that men like [Nick] exist and are found in armies. (…) the hundreds who saw [the Bosnian General] on stage at the Traverse have Weller to thank for the knowledge, not comforting but clear, that things are much less simple than [we would like them to be]. We can condemn [Nick’s] actions; we can even punish him for them. But we have also to face the fact that men like him exist (…). If we refuse to know him, or hear his voice, we refuse to listen to a part of ourselves and our own culture.21
McMillan holds society responsible for confronting its own truths and by doing so has to question the underlying ethics of Lukowiak’s viewpoint. His suggestion that overtly biased voices like Nick’s are better kept out of the public domain imply a return to censorship. And to exclude certain voices from our theatres would mean a reduction of one of our last remaining democratic domains to a social and cultural space, which allows entry only to those with a comfortable and morally sound past. Under the specifics of the GMP this would not only push its participants further to themargins of society, but it would also provide a license for audiences to ignore the less comfortable aspects of human nature. Underlying Lukowiak’s argument, of course, is the perception of an immature audience, which is incapable of critical perception. A suspicion which McMillan tries to refute also by stating:
I knew pretty much what ‘Nick’ was (…). I knew as soon as I saw this big, twitchy, hypermasculine figure walk on stage, with his dangerously charismatic smile, his reactionary rhetoric about honor and family, his strange way of talking about women. Above all, I knew when I heard him talk about the cause of Croatian independence, and the racist stereotypes he used in describing the Serbian enemy – ‘eastern’, ‘barbarian’, ‘mediaeval’. I knew I was looking at a fanatical Croatian nationalist.22
That journalists are not the only audience members intelligent and sensitive enough to see behind Nick’s heroic stage façade, became evident in a series of post-production interviews conducted with audience volunteers. The response of several interviewees showed that they not only reacted to what they had seen and heard during the production, but equally to what had remained unseen and unsaid:
I don’t remember the stories he told. I just remember that I felt this guy is in denial and the other thing I felt was (…) around the issue of being the good guy. When he said about having the right on his side – I was just astonished how he could say that and (…) how he could think we could possibly agree with him (…) I mean I was just amazed and would have to challenge him on that one.23
Another audience member commented even on the fact that the production had chosen to present a Unionist point of view only with regards to the troubles in Northern Ireland. A one-sidedness, which seems to have escaped balance conscious Lukowiak.
Weller’s work is about individuals for individuals. It is, as Lyn Gardner from the Guardian has pointed out “not judgmental, it trusts that people in the audience are mature enough to listen to what is said and make up their own minds about the nature of its truth”24.
Having unintentionally raised these ethical and moral questions regarding Weller’s professional conduct and the role we ascribe to theatre in our society, SOLDIERS might well continue to be primarily remembered amongst academics for its aftermath rather than the production itself. As critics have unanimously pointed out, the artistic quality of the work was, compared to prior GMP work, poor. And yet, reviewers have displayed great enthusiasm regarding the production’s audience efficacy. Reminiscent of the reception of Sarah Kane’s Blasted25, they herald the powerful immediacy of the work:
What matters most is the way the presence of these performers brings the reality of modern warfare crashing through the television screen, and into the room with us; Soldiers is not an easy evening’s theatre, but its impact is hard to overstate.26
That this quote represented not only the feelings of a few theatre critics, was once more confirmed by a series of audience questionnaires. The vast majority of spectators stated that they had been ‘emotionally very involved’ and ‘heavily moved’ by what they had seen. Some claimed to have been reduced to tears, others experienced strong feelings of discomfort, fear, shock, horror and guilt.27
Face to face interviews with audience members conducted shortly after the run, provided even further insights into what the production managed to achieve. All interviewees agreed to have gained valuable insights into the basic human aspects of war and killing. Having listened to and watched Frank and Nick provide personal accounts of specific situations, they united in the belief that these monologues took them straight to the human and often controversial experiential core of the presented situations:
When [Frank] told his story I could totally experience his human experience that he’d had in seeing this young man’s face blown off. And, um… I just found it incredible… and in a way his dignity and fierceness… I respected that… although I was appalled at the level of hatred he carried.28
Like any other GMP production, SOLDIERS was trading on the fact that not only was the production’s content based on workshops involving individuals with first-hand knowledge of war and killing, but the work’s core characters were not played by professional actors, but by the initial workshop participants themselves. With the audience being aware of the fact that neither Frank nor Nick were trained actors and thus capable of harnessing their emotions, their appearance on stage occurred without one of the main theatrical safety nets. Although the spatial division between participants and audience was being maintained, audience members were very aware of the ease with which this safety zone could be transgressed.
I was scared by [Nick]. (…) what I was scared by was that a member of the audience was going to feel compelled to object to what he was saying. (…) I was actually frightened. Um, and I was frightened that somebody in the audience might just start to engage with him. And that he was a real character, that he was going to react out of his own … heart… all that deep stuff that was in him that he wasn’t letting out… (…) I was afraid. I was afraid of him. I was afraid that that might come out. I was afraid that some spontaneous situation might happen, in the theatre…. And I was very close to him… physically very… in close proximity. [This interviewee sat in the first row, which was level with the stage] And I could see the guy going completely off his head. And I was frightened about that. I could feel the power.29
This combination of spatial encounter, display of authentic emotion and potential loss of control leads to a unique emotional involvement for the audience. Introduced to worlds and experiences to which they are not normally privy, and bearing witness to a series of emotional reactivations, audience members achieve a highly personalized understanding of the individuals on stage, their motivations, experiences and viewpoints.
In his seminal work The Empty Space, Peter Brook wrote:
Four hundred years ago it was possible for a dramatist to wish to bring the pattern of events in the outside world, the inner events of complex men isolated as individuals, the vast tug of their fears and aspirations, into open conflict. Drama was exposure, it was confrontation, it was contradiction and it led to analysis, involvement, recognition and, eventually an awakening of understanding.30
Weller’s work seems an attempt at a revival of this type of drama. Recognizing the immediate emotional impact upon its audiences, it does remain to be seen whether its long-term impact is just as effective. Did the emotions stirred up by SOLDIERS lead audience members to reflect and ultimately change their consciousness, conscience and behavior? Will former audience members of SOLDIERS remember their emotional and intellectual reactions to Frank, Dave and Nick in the light of the current conflicts in Afghanistan, Sudan or Zimbabwe?
1 MAD was premiered as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 1992 at Leith Theatre. It toured to the Printzregenten Theater in Munich (May 1993), the Kulturwerkstatt in Basel (September 1993) and La MaMa in New York (January 1996). It received numerous prizes including the Scotsman. Fringe First Award, an Evening News National Award, the Munich Critics Prize and the Rose of the Week. MAD was covered by the BBC’s Late Show and Channel 4 News.
2 Extract from an unpublished article written by Weller for The Guardian following the premature closure of SOLDIERS in 1998
3 This was the subtitle used for SOLDIERS.
4 The apparent safety of these particular theatrical encounters is an illusion. With project participants untrained in harnessing their often violent and unpredictable tempers, and the highly emotionally charged nature of the subjects at hand, it seems perhaps surprising that there have yet been no encroachments between project participants and audience members during GMP performances.
5 Name has been changed to protect participant’s identity.
6 In 1996, Jane’s documentary Mad About Peace: The Battle of Sanski Mosque won the prestigious Rory Peck award.
8 J. McGlone, ‘Theatre of War’, The Scotsman, 8.August 1998.
9 BBC 2, ‘The Late Show’, 10 September 1998.
10 Name has been changed to protect participant’s identity.
12 L. Gardner, ‘Looking Deep into the Heart of the War Zone’, The Scotsman, 14 August 1998.
13 Author unknown, ‘Fringe Firsts’, The Scotsman, 21 August 1998.
14 A. Sierz, In Yer Face Theatre, (London: Faber & Faber, 2001), p.154.
15 Masterson’s performance was an adaptation of Ken Kukowiak, A Soldier’s Song, (London: Orion, 1993).
16 Edited transcript from the BBC’s Late Show.
17 Author unknown, ‘Bosnia’s Soldier of Ill Fortune’, The Scotsman, 22 August 1998.
18 BAD was premiered in August 1991 as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Ainslie Park Leisure Centre. It received a Scotsman Fringe First and an Evening News National Award as well as TV Coverage on the BBC’s Late Show and the Channel 4 News.
19 J. Wilson, ‘Fringe Actor led Croats accused of War Crimes’, The Scotsman, 26 August 1998.
20 Post-production interview with Jeremy Weller, November 1998.
21 J. McMillan, ‘Dramatic Revelation of the Horrors of Ethnic Cleansing’, The Scotsman, 26 August 1998.
23 Interview with SOLDIERS audience member, October 1998.
24 L. Gardner, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Lie? The Defence’, The Guardian, 1 September 1998.
25 S. Kane, Complete Plays, (London: Methuen, 2001), pp. 1-62.
26 L. Gardner, ‘Looking Deep into the Heart of the War Zone’, The Scotsman, 14 August 1998.
27 This statement is based upon a series of audience questionnaires and their evaluation.
28 Interview with SOLDIERS audience member, October 1998.
30 P. Brook, The Empty Space (London: Penguin, 1968), p. 149.