The Courtyard Theatre – London
Theatre isn’t dead, but even superb performances can’t resuscitate this poorly-written Falklands war drama.
I was really looking forward to this play; a revival of Faith, a 1997 play by Meredith Oakes, originally performed upstairs at the Royal Court. Part of the reason why is I’m a huge Royal court fan – indeed, the best play I’ve ever seen (Terry Johnson’s searingly brilliant Piano/Forte) was performed there. Living round the corner, I’m quite the regular there; as a theatre where large amounts of new writing hits the stage, you often see fabulous, if uneven writing that shows huge promise.
That is absolutely not the case with Faith. It’s like a hilarious Fast Show caricature of poor quality experimental theatre; within the first 30 seconds, a character is required to look at the audience and scream an expletive, totally out of context. Funny as a 15 second sketch – except you are there for an excruciating two hours. The play clanks and grinds like a tank driving over a mound of glass bottles.
Dialogue is appallingly false and on the nose; characters simply loudly state their feelings to one another as though delivering Shakespearean soliloquies back and forth. Characters are bafflingly schizophrenic; some plot points only make sense if several of the characters are suffering from as yet undiagnosed mental illnesses.
The central dramatic incident – when orders come through to murder an inconveniently American mercenary captured by an isolated British platoon, resulting in a showdown between the by the book sergeant and the maverick young lance corporal – is delayed far too long, hardly built at all, then rushed into the conclusion of the first act; then forgotten about for most of the second act, then polished off with nary a hint of consequence. The 20 minutes of wordy nonsense after the plot is resolved are an excruciating struggle with your own theatre goer’s politeness not to decamp to the bar for a stiff gin.
At first, I thought my experience of covering wars was getting in the way; I’m of the school of thought that if you’re going to write about a war, you should know about it, how soldiers react and speak to one another in the field. It’s often ugly, and varies hugely from war to war, but there’s a rich dramatic vein to be tapped there – other playwrights have managed capture the essence of men at war successfully in the confines of the stage, notably Nick Whitby in To The Green Fields Beyond, and Gregory Burke in Black Watch. Both of those plays were painstakingly researched enough that they felt real; you could smell the smoke, feel the adversity.
It’s such a bizarre vision of the Falklands war it might as well be about a British platoon invading Narnia.
Oakes, on the other hand, writes about the Falklands with so little experience it is incredibly jarring to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the islands from reading news reports; Islanders are painted as pro-Argentine and describe the “thrill of horseriding in the wild” as there are “no roads”. The Argentine forces turn out to be American mercenaries. All of the fighting is done with knives for no explicable reason. It’s such a bizarre vision of the Falklands war it might as well be about a British platoon invading Narnia. I’ve already mentioned how bad the dialogue is, but Oakes has so little idea of how soldiers – or indeed men – relate to each other, I could believe she has never actually interacted with a human male before.
The one bright spot in this dreadful morass is the quality of the cast. Ian Sharp radiates a punctilious dignity as Sergeant Spiers; Stanley Eldridge delivers a quiet menace as Corporal Adam “Godzilla” Ziller (awful name though). Both men succeed in delivering the high quality transitional acting required to bring some life to Oakes’ paper thin, schizophrenic characters; which paradoxically may in fact highlight just how poor the writing is. The rest of the cast deliver their stilted, odd lines with aplomb; I was left after the play thinking I would love to see these men (and one woman) perform something like Journey’s End, or indeed, anything other than this dreadful tosh.
It’s terrible theatrical experience; I’ve never before seen such a good cast performing such dreadful material. It’s akin to watching Lewis Hamilton being made to race in a pedal car – avoid at all costs.
Faith is at The Courtyard Theatre, from the May 23 – June 16. It contains scenes of an adult nature, and writing so poor it should only be handled with special equipment.