You never know when you see something about war how you’re going to turn out in the end. If it’s an American film, for instance, you might feel uplifted full of that Yankee Doodly dum, glory, honour, country and all that. Not this show.
At this distance in time from both world wars we know more of course about what really went on than those who lived through them did. In World War I particularly, men fought in the different arenas they were sent to but, communication being what it was, they knew little about how the rest of the war was going and in both wars much of the horror was kept from civilians in an attempt to keep despair at bay, to allay fears for “our boys” and to not discourage future recruits. But for the ordinary blokes in the field, all they could do was to deal with the terror, the noise, the grief, the privations and the misery as best they could and to never let their mates down, no matter what, never ever let their mates down.
This is a beautiful show. Producer/director is Michelle Yim and The Unknown Soldier was written by Ross Ericson who also performs it solo. He’s a burly sergeant called Jack who didn’t go home after the armistice because, as he said, he had nothing to go home for. The rampaging Spanish flu of 1918 affected 500 million people world-wide and estimates of how many died range from 50 million to 100 million, one of them his wife. As he says, he volunteered to be one of the Labour Corps whose job it was to clear barbed wire, dispose of unexploded bombs, collect and identify bodies and body parts and see that they received decent burial. He’s done that for 2 years and now he is going home with his memories. He has something important to tell us first about his mate, Tom. But a nightmare gets in the way – a horrible re-living of the terror, blinding flashes, incredible noise and the sobbing, breaking man crouched by the bed that was him at his lowest, longing, begging for it to stop.
He tells us that in Luton, veterans burned the Town Hall and in London there were riots after the exhausted, maimed and forever-changed men had waited and waited for the “land fit for heroes” that Lloyd George had promised them – to acknowledge them, give them work and be sure they weren’t hungry. But not even those basics were there for them. But he is going back now to Devon – but first he has to tell us about his best mate, Tom. This is Tom who had carried him when he was wounded to comparative safety, the mate to whom he had made a promise and he never forgot that “never let mates down” was the mantra that in the field replaced all other allegiances.
Apart from when the nightmare disarms his control, this matter-of-fact soldier tells all with a that’s-how-it-is manner and holds our attention every minute he is on stage. Whether he’s telling us about the scrounger who burnt his bum on a cooked duck, taking off and p utting on his puttees, easing off his shoes with obvious relief, drinking the awful tea, reading that heart-breaking letter – and all such moments – make for a play and performance not to be forgotten. And, oh, he needs to tell about Tom. Better go and hear what he has to say. You won’t forget it. I came out of there ... well, humbled and with tears. Go on, see how you go.
Grist To the Mill Productions presents
The Unknown Soldier
by Ross Ericson
Director Michelle Yim
Venue: Bakehouse Theatre | 255 Angas Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 19 – 24 Feb 2018
Tickets: $20 – $25
Bookings: 1300621255 | www.bakehousetheatre.com