In Jonathan Lewis’s moving and enjoyable ‘Soldier On’, we see a group of military veterans and members of the military community handle personal trauma and challenges by attempting to put on a play. The play explores how the troupe achieve forms of emotional healing and rehabilitation through theatre. It must be noted that the company putting it on is a charity that does just that, assisting veterans and family members readjust to life after combat through theatre.
The production is competently acted, combining choreography and music to what are mostly realistic scenes. Some of the musical numbers are forgettable, but do not detract from what is a touching and enjoyable experience. Humour and pain are interwoven throughout the play in the right amount, and those not interested in military subjects will still find it a worthy use of their time. The stories portrayed address the many real-life issues concerning veterans: we learn of families where (mostly) men were away, spouses coping with what is effectively single-parenthood. The play portrays PTSD extremely well, giving us a balanced rendering of those struggling with it, next to the bitter dilemma of spouses reconciling their loved one’s trauma with the safety and wellbeing of themselves and their children. We learn that these men are sent back with very little support (‘not even a goodbye or thank you, Jack’) to rejoin society, their severe psychological scars from combat impacting their families and themselves for years. Drug and alcohol abuse, violence, unemployment and mental health issues are all common, and a direct result of what seems to be a lack of proper support for these men and their families.
It is difficult to watch this play and not think about how relevant and intimate these stories are to thousands of people. The phrase ‘I killed people’ and ‘You don’t know what it’s like’ are repeated often, their chilling implications a material reality for many. One wonders why we have been so willing, as a country, to throw these young men into the pits of hell for the sake of ill-conceived foreign policy initiatives. Regardless of one’s political persuasions of institutional view of the military, it is necessary to respect and appreciate the pain and service of so many. This requires us to hold our government to account more, requiring a more questioning and informed approach to foreign policy and military action than the one shown in the past few years.
Soldier On continues at York Theatre Royal Studio until April 7th.