Joyce McMillan: A US theatre project that helps war veterans

Jason Isaacs with guests Fiona Davidson and Sue Brewis

Jason Isaacs with guests Fiona Davidson and Sue Brewis

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In the 500-year-old Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle, weapons are everywhere. It’s a beautiful space, a great work of civilisation; but the mighty displays of spears and helmets lining the walls make it impossible to forget either the central role of war in our history, or its devastating human consequences.

It’s therefore hard to imagine a more fitting space for a performance by Bryan Doerries’s Theater of War, founded in New York seven years ago, and now working across the United States and internationally. The project began by using scenes from ancient Greek tragedy to help war-damaged US veterans, but now also helps communities confront issues including addiction, domestic violence and political violence.

On this wintry Sunday night in Edinburgh, though, Doerries’ company is back on home territory, playing to an audience of serving soldiers and veterans, military families, concerned professionals and volunteers, brought together by Glen Art, the Scottish-based charity dedicated to helping veterans and their families. And there’s a profound, attentive silence in the Great Hall, as actors Lesley Sharp and Jason Isaacs deliver a searingly intense reading from the scene in Sophocles’s Ajax in which the great Greek hero – exhausted by the nine-year siege of Troy, and distraught at events surrounding the death of his brother-in-arms, Achilles – goes mad, tortures and slaughters a field full of dumb beasts, and finally, despite the pleas of his wife, goes alone to the sand dunes and takes his own life.

Now of course, at one level, The Theater Of War is just one more effort to win support for the arts by demonstrating their usefulness in addressing a whole range of specific social ills. Yet the sheer power of the performance, and the depth and personal directness of the discussion that follows seems to take us back to the roots of drama itself, and to the role of Sophocles – himself a former general – in writing dramas that would enable the whole state to confront painful truths about itself, and what it asked of the men it sent to war.

“Whatever you feel or think about war, you will find people in an audience like this who have felt all that you feel, and much more,” says Doerries, who was a young writer and translator of the classics living and working in Brooklyn when the massive 2007 scandal over the negect of veterans at the US’s premiere military hospital inspired him to set up Theater Of War. “I guess I always felt that these stories belong to a whole society and not just to a few specialists; but it took me a year to find someone in the military who supported the idea, and helped me set up our first session, with 400 marines and their spouses in San Diego.

“For that session, we scheduled a 45-minute discussion, and were still there three and a half hours later; so we realised we had found a really powerful tool. And my feeling is that the main healing effect comes from this deep recognition that you are not alone with these experiences – that your pain is known and achnowledged, over great distances of space and time.”

All of which makes a great deal of sense, in a country whose National Theatre achieved its greatest ever hit with the cathartic Black Watch, based on the real-life experiences of British soldiers in Iraq.

Doerries has now written a book about Theater Of War; he hopes to be in Britain again for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. And if Theater of War does return to these shores, I’d say these events make essential viewing; both for the veterans and families who are so profoundly touched by them, and for those who care about the primal power of great Greek tragedy, and who might find inspiration in seeing that power in action, at the heart of one of the key political issues of our time.

• The Theater Of War, by Brian Doerries, is published by Scribe UK; see also www.glenart.co.uk

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