“I wanted something to be true but it wasn’t”
In the rehab unit of St Vincent’s Hospital, 21 year old Canadian soldier Michael Armstrong is back home recovering from his war wounds after a IED blast in Afghanistan. But though his physical wounds are healing, there’s more than a hint of post traumatic stress disorder about the young man as he seems happiest hiding away under his bed and chatting with the imaginary presence of his friend and comrade Robbie. A half-forgotten decision to let a girl guide read to him to earn a Community Service merit badge rouses him out of his stupor as it turns out his particular helper wheelchair-bound Halley, is a fearsome whirlwind of good intentions and over the six weekly visits it takes her to get the award, the pair find themselves connected in ways they could never have imagined.
Colleen Murphy’s new play Armstrong’s War may be having a criminally short run at the Finborough before its official premiere in Canada later this year, but this production touched me like hardly any other play I’ve seen recently and left me confident it is one of the better pieces of theatre I have seen all year. The way in which this unlikely pair develop such an intense relationship is extraordinarily done over 90 short minutes, the depth of the emotion it provokes is devastatingly honest and true, the performances under Jennifer Bakst’s direction unflinchingly raw and exposed, all combining to create the kind of theatre that lingers long in the mind.
Their first meeting is predictably disastrous: he’d forgotten he’d signed up for it, she comes armed with a piece of teen fiction to read, but once they settle on a mutually agreeable book – (Civil) War story The Red Badge of Courage – for future sessions, the scene is set for their powerful journey together. For Michael responds viscerally to the novel as it allows him to begin to process his own unimaginable grief through writing his own story based on his experience. And Halley responds by writing her own, critiquing Michael’s account but also unlocking key aspects of her own trauma, the accident that left her disabled.
Murphy cleverly manages to make each of the six sessions feel significantly different, advancing the story in intricate, nuanced ways which resonate with deep truth. She explores not only the power of reading, and the different ways in which it affects people but also the nature of storytelling and how people use fiction as a key way of dealing with grief. The way this pair tell and retell their stories is devastating, reflecting the way they see life now yet also increasingly conscious of its impact on their audience, each other.
Fittingly for the story, Jessica Barden and Mark Quartley deliver such intensely drawn performances, it sometimes felt like an invasion of something private. Barden sparkles with teenage precocity, full of the bookish confidence of the cleverest girl in the class yet touchingly concerned with the life-and-death twists and turns of her relationship with her best friend as all 12 year olds are. But despite her poise, she’s still a young girl and the raw emotion as she deals with Michael’s outpourings and then her own subsequent revelations is etched across her face in stunningly convincing detail. And Quartley balances the shell-shocked vulnerability with his fragile determination to deal with his lot to create a fully-rounded and highly affecting characterisation.
Canada is lucky to get the world premiere of Armstrong’s War in October but this simply must return to our shores soon. Brilliant.