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