Award-winning recovery through the arts programme Bravo 22 Company invites us to pull up a sandbag and rest a while, as members of the armed forces community share with us the real life stories that shaped them, on ‘Reparation Island‘.
Written by Kevin Fegan and directed by Christopher Elmer-Gorry, the production takes as its inspiration stories gathered from the armed forces community across the Midlands, performed by members of this community, made possible by the Royal British Legion and the Drive Project, in association with Birmingham Hippodrome.
The stories told in this production present a penetrating portrayal of the lives of, not only veterans themselves, but of their families – their wives, children, and friends.
A group of actors tell the stories of 51 people in just 60 minutes, including drawing on their own experiences. We see some of these characters in childhood, and how they were affected by the behaviours of their serving fathers, who suffered flashbacks, rendering both themselves and their children helpless, fathers who were cold and unfeeling, and fathers who were verbally and physically abusive. We hear of the gruelling initiation rights, and the horrific things men felt they must do in order to fit in, and to be accepted. We hear of the men who were subject to to racism within the army, and learn that many were compelled to leave as a result. We hear of the reservists who are forgotten about once they return home, who do not benefit from the same privileges and access to treatment as those in the regular armed forces. And we hear the stories of those broken by the crippling damage of conflict and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
We see the destructive influence the imposed gang mentality has, instilling an implicit warring of ‘us vs them’ – the civvies that are seen to be different by veterans, who are taught to hate, creating a divide, a gulf between those that serve, and those that do not. This production aims to seal that gulf, to unite, to realise an understanding between these two parties, and to establish one community, where stories can be shared without fear of judgement.
We are told of characters’ low points – the aggression, the alcohol dependency and drug abuse, the ended relationships, the broken families, and the suicidal behaviours. This is beautifully juxtaposed with brighter moments of rehabilitation and recovery – be it learning to walk again with the aid of prosthetics, retraining the mind, combating stress, using a guide dog, taking up poetry, or even cross-dressing. The characters share with us stories of how they coped – how they would pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and move on. The defiant refusal to let their injuries and illnesses control them, but to control their injuries and illnesses.
Interestingly, all the characters’ names seem to relate to an element of nature (ie. Sky, Storm, Dawn). Hugely fitting for a play of such naturalism, such genuine authenticity, and such raw, sometimes quite brutal, honesty. The stage design adopts a very minimal look, the floor coated in a thin layer of sand and a natural lighting gently filling the studio. The design is very natural and, as director Elmer-Gorry explains in a subsequent Q&A session, ‘the words and stories carry us through’. The minimal set and costume design here allows focus, allows emphasis, to be purely on the words spoken, the stories shared, the gestures expressed and the emotions felt. ‘Reparation Island’ is a very human landscape, humanising those men and women often labelled as case files, creating a deep and personal connection between actors and play, the result very special, and incredibly touching.
The performances by this bold and empowering group of actors is intensely affecting, and really quite humbling. Thrown out of their usual comfort zones with this theatrical challenge, it is one they all tackle head on, fearlessly. Every performance is moving, and we really get a sense of just how much it means for these men and women to have a platform that allows their stories to be heard.
Whether discussing the struggles they faced and the demons they battled, or the moments at which they beamed with pride, content with the feeling of belonging and brotherhood that come with being in the forces, there is such a weighty emotional investment from all performers, and oftentimes, there is no acting required, as though the production has given them personally a form of release, wherein they can express themselves freely in a forgiving and accepting environment. Here, we are simply presented with the natural reactions, the natural and very human responses and emotions of these members of the armed forces community. Occasionally one is overcome with emotion to the point of tears – times within the production that were so devastatingly heart-rending as to reduce the audience to tears also.
A great service has been done to servicemen and women with ‘Reparation Island’. Profoundly moving – a resounding play that packs a real emotional punch.
A strong piece, and one with potentially so much more to give, let us hope that this brave company continue to tell these stories, adding more voices to the many that this extraordinary undertaking has joined together, leaving its hefty footprints in the sand of a figurative island, a community that brings us together to face an uncertain future, in order that we might continue to share, to listen, to educate, to learn, to inspire, to upbuild, to strengthen, to make amends, to compensate, to repair, to rehabilitate, and together, to recover.