Lonely Soldier Monologues, Cockpit Theatre - Review

Based on Helen Benedict’s verbatim transcripts of female soldiers serving in the US Armed Forces, The Lonely Soldier Monologues is an extraordinary piece of theatre. Free from melodrama, the eight actresses who play the soldiers do so with total veracity and conviction. Directed by Prav MJ and performed with an astute use of choreography, sound design and lighting, LSM is authoritative in its simplicity.

The early part of the play deals with the soldiers’ prior history, and the choices and events that lead them to being enlisted. The characters onstage came from a cross-section of society, but there were a number of things about them I found particularly interesting. The one thing they had in coming was the absence of purpose or control in their lives and the possible sense of direction that serving in the military offered. A career in the army wasn’t something that they would have consciously chosen when younger, but it made sense at the time they joined up.

The other point I found interesting was the age range. Some recruits were school-age (16-17 years old) but they obtained their parents’ permission to go anyway or forged their signatures. Conversely, some of women were already married with children, but the prospect of relocating their families and being stationed in a hostile environment was no less daunting than living in inner-city housing projects. This section of the play makes a fascinating sociological study and could have very easily taken up the whole evening.

The play later deals with the day-to-day life of the recruits and the harassment and abuse they endured – simply because they were women. Women were expected to travel in pairs for their mutual protection – not from ‘hostile forces’ but from men within their own ranks... In the case of Specialist Clara Henderson (Stephanie James) she was the sole female of her platoon, so she always had to have her rifle and knife within arm’s reach of her. Those who momentarily forget this rule never forget it again…

To compound insult to injury, a number of the vererans’ testimonies corraborated that when they filed complaints about harassment and rape, it would be the women who were disciplined or ostracised in some fashion while the perpetrator in question would be promoted! What becomes abundantly clear from all the testimonies is that not only were the men’s behaviour known by the top brass, but that it was complicitly ‘endorsed’ and rewarded. One recruit was told that in Vietnam there were native prostitutes, but as there were none in Iraq or Afghanistan, the US female soldiers were there solely as ‘eye candy’ for the men...

It could be argued that the play paints a very negative picture of the Iran-Afghanistan campaign during the past decade. However, I believe that the focus of the play – whatever the intentions of the US administration for the intervention in the region – is what justification is there for the way the women personnel were treated or their lack of support? Where’s the moral integrity in that?

With the absence of support from within their ranks, it's small wonder the recruits cast a more critical eye on their regiments and the ‘democratisation’ of the region. Sergeant First Class Santiaga Flores (Tamina Davar) ponders this and as she gets to know the local people, she realises that there are some overlapping qualities with the culture of the Native Americans – simple things like the way rice is cooked, the important of the moon in the division of season and the traditional communications between clans. As a Native American herself, one of the reasons she joined the army was to reclaim her ‘warrior heritage’, to feel proud and protect her country. Instead, she finds thousands of miles from home that her participation in the ‘liberation’ is inadvertently eroding ‘the old ways’ which she cherishes. The corrosion of an indigenous culture wasn’t what she signed up for...

By the end of the evening, the weight of the stories take their toll, leaving one feeling ‘exhausted’ yet also angry that the women's experiences have still not been acknowledged, let alone addressed. This frustration should be felt by the audience. The director and cast have done an admirable job of conveying the veterans’ plight, real people with distinct personalities and not a stream of faceless statistics. Theatre can give a voice to those who have none and spur positive change. When it's like this, theatre is far from being a niche, spent force, but a robust medium that allows the sharing of experiences like no other.

The Lonely Soldier Monologues runs at the Cockpit Theatre until the 31st May 2015.

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Author's review: 
5