Thursday, 16 June 2011

Action and Emotion on the front lines!

The Sanger
By Foster Marks
Directed by Amy Hodge
Sherman Cymru
At Chapter Arts Studio
8-11 June 2011
Reviewed by Chelsey Gillard

The war on terror is in its tenth year, every day we see images of destruction and hear about the deaths of our troops through the camera lens. But how often do you get to listen to those who have actually been there?

Playwright Foster Marks offers us that chance; having served in Afghanistan as a radio operator in the Territorial Army he knows exactly what happens in the barracks and is not afraid to tell it as it is. He has experienced the problems associated with missing loved ones, being scared to kill and the ventilation issues that occur in the rather restrictive army uniform.

Inside the built up observation tower or ‘Sanger’ we meet four squaddies; Laze, Ben, Danny and Simmo. Like any group of young men they rib each other, ogle at page three girls pinned to the wall and  some are even comfortable enough to drop their pants and give their privates a much needed airing. They fall into a natural hierarchy whereby Ben (Aled Pedrick), as the newbie, falls to the bottom of the pecking order – he is the younger brother they all tease to make him stronger and is often commanded by leader Simmo (Huw Rhys) to “make us a brew”.

For these men whose job it is to fire bullets at farmers and children who stray too close to the camp it is the little things make all the difference. The pure joy at receiving a parcel from home, filled with their favourite sweets or booze hidden in shower gel bottles, is greater than the delight of a child at Christmas. 

Friendship comes in the unexpected form of Saleem (Dean Rehman), an Afghan who drops by to laugh with the lads, offer them sex toys and the use of his radio to eavesdrop on the enemy. Saleem even congratulates the men for covering their bullets in their own excrement, because this will give the wounded septicaemia and therefore make it more likely they will die. He complains that no one knows the difference between the different social and religious groups in Afghanistan saying “I’m the f**king difference”.

 Behind their jovial facade each has to deal with the pressure of being seen as a strong man, both physically and mentally; for some those pressures become too much. In front of the gang Danny (Gareth Pierce) seems perhaps the most eager for bloodshed, often spouting hateful racism punctuated with a colourful range of expletives, but when alone he cannot help but breakdown. He asks [ how do you explain to a four year old what dead is? Then how do you explain that that’s what Daddy is?]

Written frankly and skilfully directed, the dialogue spills out to engulf you in the little world of the Sanger; for a tense hour real concern for the lives of these men is all you can feel. For once war is not glorified, instead it is presented with honesty – we all want to protect the liberties of the free world, the right to live without fear, but how is it okay to destroy the lives not only of the occupied people but also the lives of our troops who come back as empty shells haunted by hideous

As Laze (Tom Cullen) mournfully sings “Waltzing Matilda”, melancholy thoughts of fighting a losing battle cannot stay out of the mind. The stripped back production offers up a bare faced insight into the futility of war, forcing you to question the fact that risking your life daily will earn you little more than working in a fast food outlet.

Part of Sherman Cymru’s brief is to produce new stage writing and to help fulfil this they have developed RAW - “more thrills that frills – raw productions of new plays that will arose, provoke and delight”. Allowing the production to remain unpolished meant it could maintain its authenticity; no Hollywood effects - just raw, nerve hitting truth.

Tense and thought provoking, The Sanger forces you think about issues that we all gloss over every day. This great play is not only exciting but most importantly is it real and honest.