Review by Thomas Gregory
When we talk of how our culture has properly captured the horrors of war, we often turn to the critically-acclaimed film by Stanley Kubick, “Full Metal Jacket”. The mix of dark humour, even darker suffering, and presenting the soldier as the alienated man, cut off from the reality of those not part of the conflict, has long been seen as one of the most honest and brutal portrayals of how an “ordinary” person may become something “other”.
In many ways, Melissa Reeve’s “Archimedes’ War” continues the story of Kubrick’s film. After a person has been intentionally broken down by their training and sent into a field of blood and fear, how does that new “other” return to a society expecting only to see the person they once were? With compassion, sincerity, and backed by real stories of those who have suffered after returning from combat, Melissa Reeve’s play explores the impact violence inevitably has on our psyche, how difficult it is the communicate the damage done, and how little we do to support those suffering from it.
The conceit that drives this play is that fifteen-year-old Arki, an avid gamer, starts to show the symptoms of PTSD. Meant to be offered up as a darkly-comic concept, the show carefully sidesteps the oft-repeated lie that video games cause violence in children, and Harry Musgrove’s performance shows a boy both concerned about his hallucinations and unwilling to let it tear him down.
This conceit is used as an excuse to point the family in the same room as two other generations of soldiers. One, a Major long removed from combat, the other a young Lance-Corporal returned home from his third tour of Afghanistan. It is through these two that we properly explore the serious and disturbing nature of PTSD, how the community supports its returning soldiers, and the impact it has on the loved ones around those suffering.
While the script is lovingly crafted, with just the right amount of humour, and a well-paced structure that highlights the struggles and determination of returning soldiers, it cannot entirely move on from the flaws in this initial conceit.
The play carefully points out that there is no simple solution to PTSD, but it is possible to live and grow with it. However, the play also shrugs off the reality that the young boy is suffering a mental illness quite different to the men he has come to be close to. The audience is asked to forget that, at the end of this play, a fifteen-year-old suffering the most concerning symptoms of mental illness, is left with no reason for their existence.
Fortunately, this flaw doesn’t negate the fact that this is one of the best pieces of media you could find that explores what it can be like for veterans.
Part of the reason for this is the incredible performers that brought Reeve’s play to life. Jordan Fraser-Trumball plays the role of Aaron, the recently returned soldier, with such subtlety that we feel confident that we know what the man was like before combat had damaged his soul. The platonic chemistry between him and Harry Musgrove is incredible, and I doubt many other pairings of actors could so easily sell the brotherly bond that forms in the play.
While some of the actors take on more than two roles, Eva Seymour’s morbidly comic moment as the enthusiastic drone pilot is so captivating that you forget the same actor performs the heart-breaking role of the young wife, scared for and afraid of the man who has returned to her.
The performance of the night, however, would have to be given to Jim Russell, who plays Major Nelson, a John-Wayne-loving patriot who may or may not have seen real combat. Sometimes funny, sometimes all-too-real, Russell’s take on Nelson often channels the brilliant Sam Neill.
As an ensemble, the actors all work amazingly and whenever they share the stage, there are real connections present.
Of course, the success of these actors comes as much from the incredible direction of Susie Dee as it does from their own talents. Dee leaves no space unused, nor time wasted. For what is a relatively short play, at 90 minutes, each moment is filled with meaning. For Dee, even the transitions between scenes are meaningful, and the scenes played out in the dark corners of the stage are as important as those directly under the spotlight. Under the guidance of another director, Reeve’s Shakespearean dream sequence could very well have come off as corny, gratuitous and unnecessary. For Dee’s performance, it is a singular glimpse into the mind of the troubled teen, and an apt reflection on society’s fascination with war as entertainment.
Romanie Harper’s design skills are incredible. The continued projection of computer-generated scenes of war, seen only through the two french windows at the back of the stage, reflects the constant images and feelings in the minds of those suffering from PTSD, while the aforementioned dream sequence in which the windows are thrown open and Shakespeare comes to life will forever be remembered as one of the great visual moments in Melbourne theatre.
The incredible work by Harper, as well as Bethany J Fellows and Lisa Mibus, allows the performers to showcase their abilities to their fullest. While confronting and illuminating, they never distract from the relationships presented to us. Likewise, the soundscapes of war both real and artificial, designed by Ian Moorhead, rise and fall with the voices of actors, supporting the performers in a way rarely seen outside of large-budget operas.
In the end, this is a play about hope. We don’t do enough to recognise the suffering of our veterans or support their return to our country. With compassion and communication, however, this can change. No character is “fixed” by the end of “Archimedes’ War” because that would be an unrealistic ending. Instead, we are left with the recognition that, while the problems never leave us, they are easier to live with if supported by a loving community.
“Archimedes’ War” runs until the 2nd of December and is part of Darebin Art’s “Speakeasy” program.