Far too often recently, we’ve seen news reports of suicides committed by members of the Canadian Forces who have served in the war in Afghanistan. The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by many of these mostly young men and women are probably incomprehensible to those of us who have not been in their circumstances.
With This Is War, playwright Hannah Moscovitch focuses on the effect of war on soldiers in an attempt to bring some measure of understanding to what they go through in the unrelenting life-and-death circumstances in which they serve.
Moscovitch – who grew up here in Ottawa and is one of Canada’s most acclaimed young theatre artists – has never shied away from difficult subjects. In 2012, the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) produced Moscovitch’s East of Berlin, a play about the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the son of a notorious Nazi death camp doctor who grew up not knowing about his father’s evil experiments. The GCTC production of This Is War opened at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre earlier this month and continues through February 23.
The play, set in the Panjwaii district of the Kandahar province of Afghanistan in 2008, looks at war and inter-related issues of love, hate, sex and violence from the perspectives of four Canadian soldiers: Master Corporal Tanya Young (Sarah Finn), Sergeant Stephen Hughes (John Ng), Private Jonny Henderson (Drew Moore – well remembered for his lead role in the 2012 Ottawa production of My Name is Asher Lev) and Sergeant Chris Anders, the company medic.
The play takes the form of a series of interviews with an unseen journalist or, perhaps, a military debriefer. Each of the four characters, who all show varying signs of PTSD after a joint mission with Afghan forces that seemingly led to terrible consequences involving deaths of children and fellow soldiers, recounts what happens back at the base as suppressed tensions came to the surface and exploded. As each of the four tells the story in turn, we see the same events re-enacted from the differing perspectives.
If there is a central character among the four, it is Master Corporal Young, a woman determined to prove her toughness equals or surpasses any of the men. Her tough exterior, though, masks a psyche bearing an overbearing weight of guilt over what happened on the mission-gone-wrong and her role in it. Her guilt plays out in an encounter with the sergeant who is her military superior that is utterly devoid of any love or tenderness and a violent attack upon the private who is infatuated, if not in love, with her.
While all four of the characters are at least somewhat deserving of empathy in reaction to the horrors they’ve been through, it is the 20-year-old Private Henderson, a naïve and inexperienced boy who’s forced to grow up fast in the circumstances, who garners the audience’s pity. Reeling from the results of the mission he’s brutalized psychologically by his sergeant and rebuffed and then violently attacked by Young. It is only the intervention of the concerned medic that keeps him from turning his gun on himself.
Sergeant Hughes is a veteran soldier who has probably seen it all far too many times. His PTSD is manifested in his indifference to the encounter with Young, his cruelty to the young private over it, and, perhaps, in the macho suppression of his true sexual identity.
The smallest role belongs to the most sympathetic of the four characters. The openly gay medic, Sergeant Anders, seems only to want to help the other three. Only with the private is it clear he has some measurable success.
This Is War is not an easy night at the theatre. Those of us sitting in the seats represent Canadian society and it forces us to think about the consequences of our decisions to fight wars and about the ways in which we respond to those consequences and to the effects on the people we put in harm’s way.
Call the GCTC box office at 613-236-5196 for ticket information.