Note: I know next to nothing about the army. I get the technical details in this from my plus one.

pink

‘We didn’t know it but we were already history.

And history’s what we’ve become.

Not the kind that’s recorded or sung, perhaps,

but history still. Our own, histories of one.’

Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist is a punch in your chest, a stab in your heart, a whisper in your ear telling you that someone is still there even when they’re gone.

On the thrust stage of the Bristol Old Vic are Hads, Taff and Arthur, our three boys, ‘We might have thought ourselves men/ but we weren’t, not yet, not then.’ It’s Arthur, the one with the cheeky smile, who pushes the others to sign up to go to war, so it’s Arthur who takes responsibility for what happens. As we see the three jump from their small life in Bristol to the wide world of war in Afghanistan, it’s hard to compare who they were with who they are after a few months away. It’s painful to think how much healthier they’d all be if they hadn’t left, but impossible to forget how much they grow in ways they wouldn’t if they had stayed.

It feels like you’re watching hearts and minds break. Almost every word is attached to a movement, making the moments of stillness shine. Noting the repetitions of movements for different meanings contrasts innocence and violence, a firework becoming a bomb just as a playground game of war becomes the real thing. Though dealing with such an aggressive subject, there is a layer of gentleness that runs throughout. As Arthur cradles a bird egg he stole before he went to war, the tenderness in his actions makes him seem like a young boy again.

Every moment tingles. The annunciation, the movements that are so precise. The way Phil Dunster’s body ripples as he leads us through these young men’s lives. The way they all look at each other. The lyrical beauty of Sheer’s words have the ability to either spike or flow, merging an incredible clarity of storytelling with youthful cheekiness and military terminology. It never leaves you behind, regardless of your understanding- or lack thereof- of tanks or training bases, of sangar, bluey or Brize.

Based on interviews with soldiers and their families, the thorough research behind the play is obvious. The green is the exact colour of night vision, the sounds are just what it’s like when a bullet whizzes past you, the helmets are the same as the one lying on the bedroom floor I left this morning. Pink Mist gets the sense of camaraderie that draws so many people to the army. Forget Queen and country, it’s about the men standing next to you. There are no limits to the lengths these men would go to for their friends on the field.

It’s not cheery, obviously. But it’s almost more painful when they’re talking about the good bits. The dark humour that they use to get through it all twists your emotions in seconds. I used to think that crying was this unexplainable thing your body occasionally did, but now I think it’s like there’s too much inside you that some of it has to spill out from your eyes. In a book review of Sheer’s poem is written, ‘there is no forced sentiment’ and this is completely true of the stage version. It is honest, open and funny. It is also terribly, terribly sad.

I imagine that Pink Mist has an extra layer of magic performed in its hometown here in Bristol, that it must lack elsewhere. There’s something special about being able to hear about Thekla in the play after walking past it on your way to the theatre.

This story makes you realise that sometimes it takes something awful to happen to make you see just how lucky you are. Count the blessings, not the curse.

Regardless of personal views or personal ties to the military, Pink Mist is a thing of beauty. But if you see it with someone whose future could be being played out in front of you, the play is a two-hour long explosion in your heart, and you might need your hand held for a while after the lights come up.

Bristol Old Vic, 23/02/2016

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A collection of thoughts about the refugee crisis, theatre and Valentine’s Day.

hands

Yesterday it was announced that half of the Calais migrant and refugee camp, known as the ‘jungle’, was to be knocked down. Last week the French authorities started the process by bulldozing the church and mosque camp. Both sites of comfort and hope were made by hand by people with next to nothing. To be separated from someone you love by thousands of miles, violent police and unsympathetic governments and then to have a remaining source of comfort destroyed- well, it’s just not very nice, is it?

The police outside the camp have a coldness to them. You can completely believe all the stories about them- that when it gets dark they attack the innocent. Reports have been coming out of injuries to those in the camp, with one charity documenting fifty incidents in the last week alone. When you’re in a life-threatening situation to begin with, the last thing you need is being beaten up by those who are supposed to be protecting you.

If this is a day for celebrating people, then I feel like we should spend some time thinking about the ignored. While most of us will spend our day either complaining about or celebrating Valentine’s day, there are millions of displaced people just trying to stay warm, dry, alive. It makes that box of chocolates feel a little superfluous.

***

There’s this bit in Jane Eyre (the BOV version that transferred to the NT) that I can’t get out of my head. It’s where Rochester kneels by her side and puts his hands on hers, and she recognises him. Like, she just knows. She can’t see him but can tell from the knobbles of his knuckles and the warmth of his fingers that it’s him. I thought that was pretty great, something to look forward to. That comfort, that understanding, just from the holding of a familiar hand.

***

When I visited the camp in Calais, a lot of people didn’t want their photographs taken, understandably. If their picture was seen by authorities on French soil, they would have proof that they had been in France. That would mean they’d have to stay in France. I took a lot of pictures of hands.

I made this video while visiting the camp. The poem, ‘Home’, is by Warsan Shire.They couldn’t have been lovelier to us in the camp. Though they had nothing, they offered us tea, smiles and stories. The media present to us the idea of migrants and refugees ‘swarming’, like a flock of violent animals coming to claim what we have to offer. The only major change came with the photograph of Aylan Kurdi on the beach, when even the most vile papers couldn’t find something mean to say.

The loveliest article: Me and My Syrian Refugee Lodger

All this contrast between violence and tenderness makes me think about the way we choose to show force in theatre. A few years ago I saw Kiss and Cry at the Barbican. It was, and I think remains to be, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It was all about hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7L3ZSHyFLI

Last week I saw An Elephant in the Garden at BOV. Although it’s about the Second World War (and elephants and the circus and love and stuff), I came out unable to stop thinking about the refugee crisis today. An extract of the review:

This little girl, her mother and the elephant are all refugees, fleeing their home for fear of wars and violence. When Elizabeth and her gang are desperately hungry after a few days walking, it is hard not to think of those going with nothing for weeks in camps and boats and in the backs of vans across the world. We know the outcome of the Second World War. The end of the ongoing refugee crisis seems less certain. It might be a children’s show, but An Elephant in the Garden makes us see these refugees as individuals. It makes us sympathise, laugh and fall in love with them. Perhaps Reade’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s book is a sign that we should all be trying to do the same.

***

On a day when everyone is talking about home and love, strolling down the street holding hands and the comfort of it all- it somehow felt important. It’s just a horrible thought that all this- government decisions, civil wars, hostility and violence- means two people who love each other might not be able to hold hands again.

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