The Lonely Soldier Monologues by Helen Benedict. Review by Hannah Roe.
Military servicemen and women are celebrated the world over for their bravery and fortitude in the face of mortal danger. We thank them at least once a year for giving their todays for the sake of our tomorrows, and rightly so we should. But The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which dramatises the real words and experiences of seven female Iraq War veterans, encourages us to challenge something rarely included in that discourse: Who are they really fighting? Who is the real enemy?
When I interviewed Helen Benedict for 17Percent back in February, she told me of the atrocities that befall female soldiers during their deployments: 99% of women in the US military are harassed by their male comrades, with 1 in 3 of those cases escalating into sexual assault. The Lonely Soldier Monologues puts those statistics into perspective, turning voiceless numbers on a database into the candid, unembellished testimonies of those who survived such treatment.
This verbatim play was borne out of interviews conducted by Helen Benedict originally as research for her book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. It documents seven true-to-life accounts of what being in the military is like when you’re female, and how the men never let you forget it. The seven interweaving monologues (performed by Kathryn Gardner, Stephanie James, Rachel Handshaw, Leonor Lemeé, Jen Painter, Sharlit Deyzac and Tamina Davar) all begin before the women enlisted, explaining how they were each wooed into the military with promises of financial gain and the freedom to travel – a welcome contrast to their largely dysfunctional familial lives.
But then the women arrive in Iraq and their reality is somewhat different. Whether they’re washing someone else’s blood off their hands, or being expected to run over the defenceless children flanking their vehicles or being forced into sex acts by the men in their own team, the women soon start to question their role in this violent war; a war where they don’t wholly understand what they’re fighting for. Their feelings of displacement become all the more raw as they embark on their difficult return to civilian life. Many are haunted by the mistreatment they received and all suffer from some form of PTSD. We are reminded that ‘the war isn’t over when you come home’ and the women must armour-up for a new kind of battle.
The production itself is well-imagined and aesthetically powerful, despite not always being as dynamic as it could be.The use of lighting and sound (designed by Gareth Prentice and James Bell) helps counteract this to an extent by disrupting the pace, but the lapses in action could be remedied further by honing in on delivery. Monologues are incredibly exposing for any actor and the ultimate success of them depends on the actor’s engagement with the audience and their storytelling ability; their challenge is making their character’s stream of consciousness something we want to listen to. Rachel Handshaw as Sergeant Terris Dewault-Johnson does this incredibly well; her performance is strong and full of conviction throughout, and Sharlit Deyzac also deserves a mention for her considered portrayal of Specialist Sylvia Gonzalez. But in comparison, the other actors didn’t quite make that impact.
I also think the play would benefit from losing the interval. The final act contains the play’s strongest moments (‘I participated in a genocide’) and the tension that precedes it would be all the more palpable if our journey towards the climax was uninterrupted. The use of an eighth, voiceless soldier (played by Olivia Onyehara) is an affecting device but I would argue that this role could be fulfilled by one of the other characters, made voiceless by the horrors she’s endured.
Verbatim theatre really does bridge the gap between art and life, which makes it tricky to critique in some ways because we are being shown the lives of real people here; real women who were promised the world but were left with so little. The stakes could not be higher. Ultimately, the production succeeds as a piece of documentary theatre and certainly incites discussion. And with some additional attention to detail, it could pack an even bigger punch.
PMJ Productions is presenting The Lonely Soldier Monologues at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, until May 31st 2015. The show is supporting the Military Justice campaign instigated by human rights organisation, Liberty. You can purchase tickets for the remainder of its run here.