Trigger Warning: This post discusses a performance work that explores themes of violence, emotional abuse and PTSD in war veterans and may be triggering for survivors.
Good Little Soldier is a new physical theatre piece about the ways in which war can return home with those who survive it. Permeating family life, far too often it results in cycles of anguish and dysfunction being passed on to subsequent generations. Director Mark Howett devised the choreography and text collaboratively alongside Ochre Contemporary Dance Company dramaturg Phil Thompson and a five-strong cast, featuring members of Gold Coast-based performing arts collective The FARM and flagship Western Australian contemporary dance company, Co3.
Howett first conceived the piece as ‘a physical dance, based on [his] own experiences growing up the son of a war-damaged soldier’. As its development progressed, the story moved outward from the personal and incorporated wide research into the shared experiences of veterans and their families. This research included community consultation with Soldier On and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, as well as discussions with Jonathan Shay, a former psychiatrist for the US army and leading expert in the study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Good Little Soldier was originally rehearsed and performed in the community hall of a small town in rural Victoria with a number of veterans in attendance. Lengthy written responses from this audience informed rewrites of the script before it travelled overseas for a season in Berlin and then back to Perth.
A dynamic soundtrack is brought to life by sound designer, Laurie Sinagra, and musician/composers, Matthew de la Hunty and Dale Couper – who perform live on stage with synths, slide guitar and clashing bits of corrugated iron – while the action plays out on a porous, Australian Gothic-inspired set by designer, Bryan Woltjen.
The majority of the story unfolds inside a family home where a mother and son struggle to cope with the psychological pressures of the father’s untreated PTSD. Having the foresight to not fix complex domestic dysfunction and internal conflict into a linear, language-based narrative, the storytelling in Good Little Soldier primarily draws on movement, sound and lighting effects in dream sequences that convey the abstract emotional states the three characters experience as they fight a war to maintain their sanity and keep from falling apart.
The performance begins from the moment the theatre doors open. As the audience shuffles to their seats, a picture of blissful country life plays out on stage. A family of three relax at home, seemingly idle on a Sunday morning. The parents, Trish (Raewyn Hill) and Frank (Gavin Webber), sit around and read the papers at the kitchen table while the son, Josh (Otto Kosok), skips and does handstands. Frank and Josh play-box and laugh.
Vanda and Young’s “Falling In Love Again” plays from a radio sitting atop a retro Kelvinator at the left of the room. At the rear is a high wall made from patched sheets of corrugated iron with slat windows at the centre; to the right a mini-bar and a dartboard. The white pieces of fabric hanging from clotheslines in the wings seem innocuous at first but closer inspection reveals them to be dozens of stretched out bandages – a signal of the grievous wounds that will be inflicted in the following scene.
After a short while, Frank strolls off stage and comes back wearing a camouflage jacket. Once Trish helps him to button it up, two men in full uniform march in and stomp in unison. At this moment the fragile tranquility is broken as Frank is whisked off to service.
Hammering gunshots and an explosion from artillery fire ring out as the family home serves as the backdrop for the chaos and unthinkable atrocities of armed conflict. In Frank’s experience of war, Trish and Josh become the enemy combatants in a frantic scramble in the dark that ends with a bomb in a school bag.
As the lights come up, we are returned to a slice of life as Frank’s tour is prematurely over and he is out for dinner with the family at the local pub. The illusion of calm doesn’t last long as cracks start to appear in his grasp of reality. The early symptoms of Frank’s PTSD first emerge in paranoid behaviours, voices (“Hey Frank, did you check the exits?”), and an over-eagerness to pop open the next tinnie.
The full weight of his condition soon finds personification in Max and Mike (brilliantly performed by Grayson Millwood and Ian Wilkes) – two of his fallen comrades who egg him on to taunt Josh with an increasingly psychotic and cruel series of war games and forced feats of physical endurance that darkly mirror the innocent skipping, handstands and play-boxing in the opening scene. As Josh tries to keep up with his father, physical and emotional abuse become an omnipresent reality. Frank’s ghosts begin to haunt him as well; Max and Mike acting as hyper-masculine, ocker uncle figures who urge him to accept Frank’s behaviour and look up to him as a hero.
The foil to Frank’s increasingly erratic behaviour and descent into alcoholism is Trish. As the only female character – and arguably the most heroic – she walks on eggshells trying to protect Josh and herself by containing the ticking time bomb that is her husband. With very limited dialogue, aside from hushed-yet-stern attempts to keep Frank in check (“Frank. Stop.”), Trish’s experience is communicated by the way her movement becomes increasingly stiff and soldier-like as she is forced to become both warrior and field nurse in the battle that Frank has brought home with him.
As a highly experienced dancer and Artistic Director at Co3, Hill is well suited to this role. The push-and-pull dance she performs with Kosok, after Trish finds Josh suffering after one of Frank’s ‘games’, is tragic and deliberate in its awkwardness. As she tries to clean up the dozens of beer cans strewn across the floor whilst simultaneously folding the washing, a wounded Josh seeks to console, to help and to carry her. When the connection can’t be made, the best she can do is to force him to sit and do homework – a small victory and glimmer of hope for her son to escape from the cycle of dysfunction.
Following this moving sequence, just as Josh settles into his work, Max and Mike enter drinking and laughing and drag his attention away. Leaning over his shoulder they discover that his assignment has asked him to ‘discuss the cost of war’. This leads them to speculate about what ‘cost’ means and if it can really be quantified when taking into account “the men and women [survivors] who are twisted and unable to straighten.”
At this point, the house lights came on and the two step off the stage to ask the audience if there are ever good reasons to go to war. After some shaky responses from the crowd and a brief discussion of Hitler, Wilkes segues into an impassioned speech about how the devastating effects on Indigenous people of British invasion and frontier wars ripple through to today.
Breaking the mood, inducing discomfort in the audience and introducing new subject matter is a risky manoeuvre that could be interpreted as ill-conceived. Taken as a Situationist-style interruption to the flow, however, the jarring disjuncture created out of this break-in-entertainment was effective in making explicit the immediate social reality these artists want to bring to our attention.
The site of war in the ANZAC tradition tends to be overseas, fighting a foreign enemy, while frontier wars and acts of genocide that took place in the name of forming Australian nationhood are all too often swept under the rug of history. With the lack of any treaty or recognition of the invasion that took place, for many of this country’s first peoples, these wars never ended. In his powerful monologue, Wilkes puts forward that unresolved intergenerational trauma from poisonings and massacres that took place during the frontier years resurface today in the inwardly directed violence of substance abuse and suicide.
While the subsequent half of Good Little Soldier doesn’t pretend to hold easy answers to the difficult problems it brings to light, it does tackle them head-on and comes through with a clear message: If we claim our wars are just – whether fought in self-defence or to liberate oppressed people – then this must mean social justice for the individuals and families who bear the human cost. Packaged in this message is an urgent call to maintain and improve the services provided to survivors of trauma and those around them so that they may begin, or continue, to heal the wounds of the past and move towards a healthier and more stable future.
The post-show Q&A on Wednesday further unpacked the interlacing themes of the show and provided greater insight into the working process by which the script has evolved over multiple showings.
Content relating to intergenerational trauma affecting Indigenous communities was brought into further relief when an audience member pointed out a number of the historical injustices faced by Indigenous soldiers who after fighting in various overseas wars were returned to a segregated nation that treated their people as non-citizens. There is even evidence to suggest that as many as 50 were left behind after the second Boer War.
Some were critical of the earlier mentioned choice to break the action halfway through, arguing that this part didn’t seem well enough integrated into the rest of the story. A friend who went on Thursday night told me the fourth wall stayed thoroughly intact this time around, demonstrating the creative team’s commitment to producing reflexive, living theatre.
The current season of Good Little Soldier runs until the end of next week at Subiaco Arts Centre. To purchase tickets visit the PTT website.
Images: Good Little Soldier production stills by Peter Tea, courtesy of Co3