The editor of Northern Soul talks to poet, novelist and scriptwriter Owen Sheers about his play, The Two Worlds of Charlie F.
Soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sometimes envy those with physical injuries – the wounds obvious to the outside world, their suffering easy to recognise, while the effects of PTSD are endured alone with no obvious scarring. Then again, it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two as bodily injuries are no safeguard against psychological pain.
Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel’s searing account of the ‘after-war’ faced by US soldiers on their return home from Iraq, is perhaps the most powerful non-fiction account of the psychology of war and the subsequent human cost of battle. Finkel writes: “…while the truth of war is that it’s always about loving the guy next to you, the truth of the after-war is that you’re on your own…” Everyone should be made to read Thank You For Your Service if for no other reason than to better understand what it’s like for people who endure the spectre of suicide whispering in their ear every day.
Of course, with the centenary of the start of First World War on the horizon and the recent 70th D-Day anniversary, sacrifice and heroism are on many people’s minds. Next week sees the start of a six-day run of The Two Worlds of Charlie F at Manchester’s Opera House, a play written by the award-winning poet and novelist Owen Sheers and performed by military personnel and veterans as well as professional actors.
It’s a bold premise. Moving from the war in Afghanistan, through the dream world of morphine-induced hallucinations to the physio room, the play explores the consequences of injury, both physical and mental, and the effect on others as soldiers fight to win the new battle for survival at home.
Sheers has form when it comes to ambitious projects. In 2011, he wrote the script for the National Theatre of Wales’s The Passion, directed by and starting Michael Sheen. Pink Mist, a verse-drama about three young soldiers from Bristol who are deployed to Afghanistan, was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and won the Hay Medal for Poetry 2013. Then there’s The Dust Diaries, a work of narrative non-fiction about Zimbabwe, not to mention his two volumes of poetry and numerous works for the theatre.
But The Two Worlds of Charlie F was the first time that the Ministry of Defence had allowed a theatre access to their wounded men and women. The resulting play stemmed from workshops and interviews with wounded, injured and sick military personnel, and was created through the partnership of The Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust and The Royal British Legion and Defence Recovery Capability.
Sheers tells Northern Soul how he came to be involved with the project. “I was approached when it was a single line idea. It was a fascinating idea inherent with all sorts of challenges and risks. Alice Driver at the Haymarket wanted to create a play based on the experiences of recently wounded service personnel, both physical and pyschological, but wanted them to be in the cast of a recovery play. The director and I started from scratch. I didn’t want to do a piece of verbatim theatre, it had to be more than that.”
He adds: “The psychological effect of conflict has been something that I’ve written about organically. It’s the central theme in Resistance [later made into a film starring Andrea Riseborough] and I’ve written a couple of plays about a couple of the Second World War poets. With this [The Two Worlds of Charlie F], I thought there was a rare opportunity, particularly doing interviews via the military.”
Sheers sees the play as “a piece of anti-war theatre” although he concedes that some of the cast may not share his opinion. When he first joined the project, those involved were talking about producing a ‘revue’ show. “That wasn’t a direction I was up for,” says Sheers. As time progressed, the play morphed into something very different, although Sheers did have to write it alongside a Ministry of Defence board of governance.
“”The MoD came to see the rehearsals and they could have stopped the play then. However, since then they have been very, very supportive…But they did want to cut all of the last speech. That speech ties up everything together. That was the speech that opened it up to a broader debate. I said no, then they allowed it to stay in.”
The decision to cast both professional actors and serving and veteran servicemen and women has “undoubtedly been difficult” but Sheers is confident that the hard work has paid off.
He says: “The actors had a tough job. They had to bring their acting down to a level of naturalism in order to meet the soldiers. There had to be not just a theatrical glue on stage, there had to be a glue socially as well.”
Sheers relates a statistic about combat stress: a veteran of the Falklands takes, on average, 14 years to seek psychological help. It’s a staggeringly long time. “One of the ideas of this [play] is to get to people early. Even if someone hasn’t been injured, there are real transition issues with coming back into civilian life. A lot of people we worked with had lost their sense of identity, a lot had lost their families. The experience of being in a play really gave them a sense of purpose and challenge and a sense of identity again. Now they are telling their stories to other people. And just seeing disabled people on stage is an extraordinary thing.”
Sheers reflects that, in the US, there is a Department for Veterans Affairs which provides patient care and federal support to ex-military personnel and their families – but there is no such organisation in the UK. “We don’t have a separate department. The same department that sends them to war looks after their recovery…We have been at war for 13 years. There will be a massive psychological shadow. People do get more help today [than after previous wars] but it’s not perfect.”
There’s a line in Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service about Adam Schumann, a US veteran of Iraq. The war left him with PTSD, depression, nightmares, headaches, tinnitus and mild traumatic brain injury. But when he steps off the plane home onto the tarmac, he wishes “he were on crutches and covered in bandages. The great soldier, returning from war. He felt ashamed.”
No soldier should have to feel like that. Hopefully Sheers’s play will go some way to broadening our understanding of psychological trauma.
Main image by Cylla von Tiedemann
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is at Manchester Opera House from June 9-14, 2014. For more information, follow this link: http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/opera-house-manchester/