Review: The Grandfathers
We begin at the end. Nine soldiers are pinned down under heavy fire. One man, intense blue eyes gazing wildly, lies in the arms of another, who tearfully calls for aid while tending to his wounded comrade. The theatre of war is unspecified but familiar, this scene new but recognisable.
Then we shift back to the early stages of these boys’ 547 days training. And they are boys, with boys’ fears and dreams. Tol (Elmi Rashid Elmi) would nurse a wounded bird to health, to the annoyance of the others; Dim (Henri Scanlon) lies awake at night dreaming up the very worst tortures that could await him.
Lev (Aidarus Aidid) dreams of a “fair” fight, with sword and shield, as a Roman soldier; Sash (Luke Scholefield) wonders how a battle for ideas, rather than land, can ever be won. Kost (Jon Parsonage) just wants to “twat stuff”.
Rory Mullarkey’s 2012 play, now at the Shed after an initial run at the Bristol Old Vic, is informed by the writer’s 1 Army training regiment at Pirbright in Surrey. In the programme notes, he records his recollections of how painting over fear with routine that is the bread and butter of military action.
His outsider perspective informs the production. A vein of sadness runs through the play because we are not part of the regiment, we are observers. So while there’s comedy here, it is tinged with tragedy. While the boys laugh and joke around - Zhem’s laid-back cockiness and Kol’s physical humour get the biggest laughs - we see their japes with the knowledge of the trials to come, and smiles are rueful.
There’s a temptation to read a lot into the play, but Mullarkey’s drilling down to the detail and rhythm of soldiers’ training defeats wider analysis. The Grandfathers has little to say about foreign policy, but a great deal to impart about futility, masculinity and bravado.
A word on Jesse Jones's direction, which is pinpoint throughout. It’s an astonishingly physical production; the only moment of stillness is as the audience enter, when the actors stand motionless, heads bowed. Movement around the performance space - a square no more than 15’ by 15’ - is smartly choreographed.
At just 55 minutes, The Grandfathers is to the average National Theatre production as an espresso is to a cup of Earl Grey: bracing, but gone too soon.
Tickets for The Grandfathers are £12, on sale via www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/theshed or box office 020 7452 3000