One of the most despairing moments in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" shows a GI shooting from a helicopter at anonymous Vietnamese civilians, explaining "If they run, they're VC. If they don't run, they're well-trained VC." The slaughter is not just random but utterly futile, not allowing us the consolation of believing it might serve some larger purpose.
Evan Sanderson's "Fallujah", playing at the Cockpit Theatre to December 15th, was inspired by a piece in Rolling Stone magazine suggesting that the death toll from veterans committing suicide might eventually outweigh deaths in combat. This multi award-winning play tells the story of a journalist embedded with a marines unit in Iraq. The other candidate for the assignment is vastly more knowledgeable, but loses out due to the fact that her brother is an Iraq veteran suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, leaving her "emotionally compromised". She is the only character whose name, Penny, we ever learn.
That Sanderson is aware of the expectations created by previous fictionalisations of war is neatly demonstrated by a scene in which the savvy marines sergeant gulls the newly arrived reporter with a stirring tale of comradeship under fire, which he turns out to have lifted wholesale from "Saving Private Ryan". This sergeant is cursed with enough intelligence to understand that the only effect of terrifying innocent civilians in the middle of the night will be to recruit them to the insurgency. His subordinates are two privates, one of them terrified the others will find out he's never killed an Iraqi as he always aims to wound, the other a dumb grunt who imagines his colleagues calling the journalist "Gonzo" must be a reference to the Muppets.
On patrol the group encounter Arab Woman 1 and Arab Woman 2, and the journalist's copy of "Arabic for Dummies" comes in useful for telling them the area they live in is about to be bombed. Later, in the confusion of a skirmish one of the women is killed, and the journalist's mental disintegration begins. When he meets them again, are they the same women? Are they wearing the niqab in an attempt to deceive him? Then again, is the man he meets in the veterans' hospital Penny's brother? And when we see Iraq and America on stage simultaneously, allowing the sergeant to watch and offer advice as the journalist asks Penny for a date, is it just a theatrical convenience or a hint of things to come? One thing's for certain - the pills which he and the soldiers all pop like sweets to deal with combat stress are not without side-effects.
"Fallujah" is blessed with a strong ensemble cast, and if the occasional English vowel pokes through it's easily forgiven. All in all this is a compelling piece, though it might have benefitted from spending less time on familiar ground and exploring further the surreal elements that make it distinctive.
|Event venues and times
||The Cockpit | Gateforth Street, (Off Church Street), London, NW8 8EH
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