Venue: Old Fitz Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 17 – Apr 5, 2015
Writer: James McLure
Director: Mark Lee
Cast: Michael Booth, Thomas Campbell, Tom Oakley
Image by Rupert Reid
In James McLure’s Pvt. Wars we visit three injured soldiers at a rehabilitation facility. The play was first staged in 1979, but there is no clear indication of the time at which the action takes place. It could be the aftermath of any war, because the ramifications of sending young people to battle never seem to change. Some return victorious, but many end up dead or damaged. It is not a fiercely anti-war piece, but McLure’s writing does place focus on these individuals’ physical and psychological afflictions. Comedy is created from the interplay of their mental dysfunctions, as well as from the tensions derived from their divergent social classes and from the points of dissent, and assent, as cohabitants of the hospital.
Direction of the work by Mark Lee is gentle and elegant. The resultant work is funny, but its laughter comes naturally from the honest exploration of characters, rather than it being a desperate priority. The show is about trauma, but it is kept light-hearted by an evasive masculine approach to pain. The three men come face to face with each other’s terror, but they skirt around the issues, rarely able to address them directly.
Michael Booth plays Silvio, the overcompensating alpha male who brings energy and a sense of danger to the stage. The actor appears to be distracted at several points, but his timing is effective nonetheless, and the sense of barely hidden distress and anxiety he introduces, is a significant contributor to the dynamic pace of the show. The more sophisticated Natwick is performed by Thomas Campbell, an actor with a disarmingly sensitive presence that provides an air of authenticity to proceedings. His very regular sequences of letter-writing to Natwick’s mother is let down by poor sound design, but his warmth is an inviting quality that we connect well with. Tom Oakley’s character Gately sits centre stage for virtually the entire duration, repairing an old radio. He is perennially hopeful, but struggles every day to find direction and meaning. Oakley’s portrayal resists theatrical gesticulation and embellishment, but conveys that confused determination beautifully, with a confident and touching simplicity.
The play comes to a conclusion that intends to be poignant, but a sudden loss of clarity interferes. The story surprises us at the end when it takes an abstract and abrupt turn, leaving us to our own beliefs about war, soldiers and manhood. It does not make any persuasive arguments to change our political affiliations, and its social commentary is subtle. Perhaps all it requires is for us to remember that individual lives are affected, often dramatically, while we become increasingly numbed by headlines that are no longer able to occupy more than a few moments each morning.