[Review] Pink Mist at the Birmingham REP

Inspired by thirty interviews with returned service men, Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist explores the physical and psychological impact of war on three young men deployed to Afghanistan. The performance flits between the perspectives of Arthur (Dan Krikler), Hads (Alex Steadman) and Taff (Peter Edwards), and between timeframes, in a nonlinear delivery of memory that questions whether soldiers can ever fully return home from war.

Waiting to get a kebab after a night out with a girl being sick beside him, Arthur sees an Army recruitment poster in a shop window, and his reflection is superimposed onto the soldier’s uniformed body. For three boys who want more than ‘big nights out in a small town’, war provides money, security, and a chance to make something of themselves. This two-toned performance – that juxtaposes present and past, colloquial and poetic, glory and broken dreams – shows the soldiers as excited comrades who are good at what they do, and also as broken men, returning home to their childhood bedrooms, unable to leave the house on bonfire night.

This two-toned performance – that juxtaposes present and past, colloquial and poetic, glory and broken dreams – shows the soldiers as excited comrades who are good at what they do, and also as broken men, returning home to their childhood bedrooms, unable to leave the house on bonfire night. 

Owen Sheers’ poetical stage-play is fictionalised, verbatim theatre at its best, blending brutal honesty and Bristol accents with rhyme, half-rhyme, and powerful imagery. From Arthur recollecting the ground ‘rising up and down like a heartbeat’ after an explosion, to asking ‘What’s next, after [a job at] Next?’ the play demonstrates the power of depicting personal experience through art, providing content that is at times unexpectedly philosophical and continually overwhelming in its honesty. It is a mesmerizing rhapsody that poignantly depicts the ongoing battle with PTSD that continues long after a soldier returns home from war.

The cast, each spectacular in their given moments, deliver the dialogue with incredible inflection, tone, and pace, that leaves the audience hanging on every word. Dan Krikler, as the protagonist Arthur, is particularly remarkable, delivering his lines with such devotion that his respect for the original speaker is clear in each syllable. The passionate performances from Rebecca Killick as Lisa, Rebecca Hamilton as Gwen, and Zara Ramm as Sarah, vehemently depict the struggles of partners and families desperately trying to support their loved ones.

   The cast, each spectacular in their given moments, deliver the dialogue with incredible inflection, tone, and pace, that leaves the audience hanging on every word.

Jon Nicholls’ sound design provides a subtle backbeat to the lyrical dialogue, using background noises, such as rain and a metronome, to complement and enhance the rhythm of the language. At other times, deafening noises and music are used to demonstrate the obtrusive nature of memory on the suffering mind.

At first, the exaggerated physicality of the performers alienates the audience from the weighty content of the language, but as the piece continues, the actor’s fluid motions seem to melt into the words themselves, giving emphasis to certain phrases and drawing attention to recurring motifs. In unison, the ensemble uses pace and levels to create interesting and provocative images, such as crowds in bars and comrades shouting commands from an Arabic Handbook in Afghanistan. Other movement sequences, such as Taff’s return home, direct the action in and out of flashbacks, and provide moments of reflection that help the audience to deal with the emotional intensity of the scenes.

The actors perform in a white box on stage that, like the broken mind of a soldier returning home, is a space sporadically filled with haunting memories, clouded coloration, and shrieks of sound. Peter Harrison’s lighting design, sees the stage tinted in bold colours that take the audience from the golden haze of the dessert terrain in Afghanistan, to the pink haze of a sunset on a hot day. When the action returns to the void white space, the audience are reminded of the suffering soldiers who are constantly trying to clear their minds so that they can rest.

When the action returns to the void white space, the audience are reminded of the suffering soldiers who are constantly trying to clear their minds so that they can rest. 

‘My only hope is that people remember what those three letters mean,’ Arthur says, talking about war in the conclusion of the performance, and self-referentially acknowledging the limitations of language to explain the unexplainable. Pink Mist is a breath-taking piece of verbatim theatre, and although it may never be possible to fully understand what our service men and women go through, Owen Sheer’s stage-play draws attention to the power of the shared personal experience, and to the homeless person on the street, or the man dancing to dubstep in the bar, that may need to talk, and need us to listen.

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