Pink mist. That’s what they call it.
When one of your mates hasn’t just bought it,
But goes in a flash, from being there to being not.
A direct hit. An I.E.D. An R.P.G. stuck in the gut.
However it happens you open your eyes
And that’s all they are.
A fine spray of pink, a delicate mist
As if some genie has granted a wish.
There, and then not.
A dirty trick you pray isn’t true.
White heat. Code red. Pink mist.
Blue on blue on blue.
This is Owen Sheer’s verse drama, Pink Mist, now playing at the Bush Theatre. Originally commissioned as a radio play for BBC4, the work went on to win for Sheer the Hay Festival Poetry Medal and the Wales Book of the Year in 2014. The passage above makes it easy to see why the work has been the subject of accolades:Sheer’s work is very lyrical and stunningly beautiful in parts. The words and the way he uses them evoke pain, dignity and outrage in clear and lasting ways. Finding the poetic side to the horror inflicted by modern warfare is difficult but Sheers manages it.
Sheers has serious form with impact-of-war dramas. His clever and powerful play The Two Worlds of Charlie F was rightly acclaimed around the world. But that work took a very different form to this one and it was more obviously a play. Pink Mist is very definitely poetry.
In the note in the programme, Sheers acknowledges this:
Pink Mist is a play that breaks the cardinal dramatic rule of ‘show don’t tell’. None of its characters inhabit their stories in the moment. Rather, apart from the occasional interjection of dialogue, each of them tells their story, reporting back from the other side of the crucible with a hurt wisdom at odds with their youth or limited experience…Pure telling, however, is rarely dramatically engaging and this is where the lyrical note of Pink Mist is vital. In acting as a counterpoint not just to the traumatic content of the play, but also to the dominant flow of told stories. For it is, I hope, in the poetry of their speeches that the characters in Pink mist ‘show’ us, as well as tell us, their experiences – through imagery, rhythm and patterned echo, and by excavating their emotional trauma not through the dramatic immediacy of action, but via the deeper, subterranean channels of spoken music.
There is no doubt that what is arresting here is the language and the gentle, sometimes shimmering, phrases which are combined to produce passages of tremendous, affecting power, and true insight into pain. Sheer looks at what drives young men to band together and to leave their lives – their girlfriends and mothers – to pursue adventure and mortal challenges in the field of war. With unerring attention to detail, he meticulously demonstrates what being in military service means to these lads, how they discover a:
…tightening down of the pride and the bond. It starts with your regiment – their history, their badge. Then, as you go on, it’s a deepening of where you belong. Your battalion, your company, your platoon, your section, all the way down to your four-man fire team. Until that’s what you’re fighting for.
It’s not that Sheers has anything particularly novel or freshly insightful to reveal; what is of real interest here is the way the beauty of the writing contrasts with the horror of the subject.
There are whole sections in Pink Mist where you could close your eyes and think you were hearing a modern version of some wonderful Greek tragedy. These stories of modern warfare ring with a clarity borne of experience of the ages – it could as easily have been the story of three Greek lads facing the prospect of the sacking of Troy. War is war; death is death. The primeval experiences of war, death and life amidst both are as timeless as starlight.
Directors John Retallack and George Mann, presumably in an effort to make the recitation of poetry more visually interesting, have created a kind of movement language which is utilised constantly throughout the production. At first, it seems slightly ridiculous, more akin to the kind of movement you might see on the 1960s television series, The Samuri – a ritualistic crouch and pounce set of movements, with delicate hand movements cutting through the air in different directions. But as the play progresses, and one gets used to this odd routine, the purpose of the movement becomes somewhat clearer. Just as the lads had to get used to new ways to understand their place in the military, so the audience has to accept the languid choreography as part of the understanding of the repetitions and rituals of the war zone. Its alienating at first, but it becomes comforting, reassuring.
What it isn’t, however, is visually arresting. Indeed, nothing that occurs by way of action in the production is ever more interesting than Sheer’s words or the way they are delivered. The power is in the words and when it is unlocked, the effect is mesmerising.
Happily, the production is blessed with the magnetic and spell-binding presence of Phil Dunster, a young actor who is a star on the rise. He is quite superb in the key role of Arthur, the ringleader who gets his pals, Taff and Hads, to join up with him. Carrying the bulk of the written material, Dunster shines.
Unusually, for an actor of his age, Dunster is unafraid of the silence that comes with appropriate and significant pauses; he uses silence as punctuation, very effectively. His powerful, supple voice is eloquent and engaging, and he has no difficulty in telling complex tales in simple, digestible ways. His voice is commanding and comforting, controlled and filled with rage, tender and scornful. He engages with the physical requirements of the movement whole-heartedly and is critical to the audience accepting that movement as part of the fabric of the play.
But Dunster is the sole performer who reaches the levels of commitment and skill Sheers’ play requires to work. The other five are not in his league and although each is given material as rich in promise as Dunster, none makes the material come to life as he does.
Thus, alas, Sheer’s hopes that “the deeper, subterranean channels of spoken music” will overcome the pitfalls of “Pure telling” are dashed in large part. Only Dunster accomplishes the challenge Sheer’s text sets for an onstage production. Peter Harrison’s excellent lighting assists greatly with the unleashing of the dramatic energy in the verse, but it is not enough.
Pink Mist is a great piece of writing. It needs a better cast production to unlock its full potential. Nevertheless, it is haunting and riven with painful experience. Pure painful poetry.