Thursday, 12 January 2017

Review Veterans Day

Veterans Day
by Donald Freed

The Wrong Berlin

When one talks about the military-industrial complex (surely you have constant chats about it 😉 ?), the entertainment industry perhaps does not immediately spring to mind. Yet entertaining the troops and maintaining civilian morale is indeed a show business staple. And in the USA during at least one World War and ensuing conflicts, there was always hope.

Comedian and movie star Bob Hope, that is.

Donald Freed's 1989 three-hander Veterans Day takes place in a military hospital, part of an armed forces' benefits' system, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, separate from the Department of  Health. A trio of veterans are waiting for the arrival of the president and the awarding of medals.

Bob Hope has a minor hearsay role in this 95 minute off-kilter piece of military and commercial misdirection and misguided missiles. Yet it also reminded TLT of hit songwriter Harry Warren's bitter  quip about his relative obscurity compared to a more celebrated practitioner of the craft, Irving Berlin. "They bombed the wrong Berlin".

Only slight facial flickers and an outstretched sock-clad foot indicate signs of life in wheelchair-bound shell-shocked First War War private Leslie Holloway (Roger Braban). He  provides a mostly-mute audience for the psychodrama played out in front of him.

Younger man, John McCormack Butts (Craig Pinder) never saw active service in World War II but  was part of the World War II entertainment corps, acting, we learn gradually, as the military equivalent of a Hollywood publicist covering up armed forces' scandals.

Pinder settles down into the role of  Butts, intent on successfully stage managing the presidential visit. Butts juggles alongside knowledge of a less-than-salubrious past add concern about his family and business in the face of rival Japanese manufacturers, at first almost absent-mindedly trying to accommodate increasingly strange utterances of the third man in the room.

Colonel Walter Kercelik is a decorated Vietnam war hero (Charlie De Bromhead), a well-known media face seemingly with access to secret service dossiers on the other two who has, apparently, under the trauma of hiding wartime atrocities, gone rogue. 

Kercelik, who has in turn been an audience for Butts' rendition of war songs from Ivor Novello's Keep The Home Fires Burning to, yes, Irving Berlin's anthem, "God Bless America" keeps the persona of a detached celebrity before his plan, using Holloway as a prop and accessory, becomes apparent.

Originally started as United States' Armistice Day, Veterans Day passed into law as a November 11th legal holiday.

It was "dedicated to world peace" in 1936, a year after the introduction of United States' social insurance, bringing it in line with similar measures introduced before World War I in Europe. After World War II a campaign to  create a national veterans' day, honouring all  military veterans, was put in place.

The play Veterans Day manages to encompass the American Civil War, the First World War and the special relationship with Britain, up to the Vietnam conflict. But there's no doubt this is, intentionally, a seriously weird piece

On the one hand, it's a straightforward presidential assassination plot. On the other, it twists together government, history and state welfare, the psychological and the  medical, the military and the commercial of an America on the cusp of a post-Cold War new world order.

The Finborough revival takes place as, many would say, fact has outpaced fiction. Donald Trump, arguably or indisputedly according to your point of view, made by TV, prepares to enter the White House. At the time of the play's premiere, movie-made Ronald Reagan, albeit a more experienced politician, had just left the White House, leaving the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall as his legacy.

In 1989 it was classed as a "black comedy".  Now the revelations and twisting and turning tales of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and  the internet bubble conspire to make it something else. There's even been a Secretary of Veterans Affairs with Japanese ancestry.

The acting in this production is solid and director Hannah Boland Moore manages her own juggling trick in nicely pacing a fantastical dialogue-heavy play, aided by the drifting in parade ground noises of Matt Downing's atmospheric soundscape. It also feels a good decision to exploit the play's cinematic qualities by having it run through without an interval as the protagonists strike more and more the poses of Hollywood melodrama.

This play feels like both a critique and a part of Americana, a patchwork which still has resonance. Yet a play with so many purely American references also feels for a British audience more as if it could be the inspiration for new drama to grapple with our strange times. It's an upper range amber light for a play which almost persuades us that two wrongs can make a right.

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