‘Nam. It just won’t go away. Its impact on American history and society continues to be profound. But its impact on culture goes far beyond the borders of the USA – largely of course thanks to Hollywood, but also because so much of the Sixties radicalism that inspires people was fired by the injustices of Vietnam. Many a Brit will put Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter in their top films list.
So culturally we’re primed for Jim McClure’s 1979 play Private Wars (or PVT. Wars) – and indeed the fact that you don’t actually see many plays about Vietnam being staged makes this an intriguing prospect. And if you are intrigued (in fact, even if you’re not), then I highly recommend heading down to the Rosemary Branch (very nice pub by the canal in Islington) to see this play. A wonderful and very funny script has been turned into a wonderful and very funny performance by Lost & Found’s new theatre company, under the directorial debut of Rob Wilson.
We have three Vietnam vets: the posh Jewish, New York Times-reading, cravat-wearing Natwick; the macho and narcissistic Italian-American Silvio; and Gately, the drawling blond Southern mechanic who holds the trio together in so many ways. So, as you can see, we are in the company of a set of American character types familiar to us, once again, from Hollywood.
This trio is forced together as they languish in a rehab hospital. Physically their wounds have healed – in fact, the only physical damage we’re made aware of is Silvio’s. I won’t reveal the injury, but it explains a lot about his obsession with underwear and his preoccupation with flashing the nurses. It is the psychological hurt which keeps them institutionalised. But, besides Silvio to some extent, we are not in the company of madmen either; the real problem to be dealt with is how these men are supposed to re-enter ‘normal’ society after their experiences in Vietnam have proved the world itself to have gone awry. It isn’t a problem that can be dealt with, and though they can leave at any time, it is clear that there is no way out for any of these guys.
There is barely a mention of the war itself – it is a trauma too large for head-on discussion, and we see the effects of this in Natwick’s manic behaviour or pathetic letters home, or in Gately’s fixation on building a radio while the others keep stealing his spare parts. Silvio’s sexual violence is a more deliberate metaphor – this is a play very much about masculinity and what its proper role might be.
There are many golden lines in the script, and the cast do an almost seamless job in delivering them (as long as you can get over the one dodgy US accent – Edward Fromson as Silvio – which you can). As the play progresses, the bizarre banter of the opening scenes gives way to still very humorous but more disturbing and acute sense of despair and desperation – made even more bleak by the slight tinge of hope suggested by Gately’s elegy to the sunrise in the drunken closing moments.
Excellent performances all round. All three look the part to a T. In a sense they do have these familiar stereotypes to inhabit, but they make them human rather than hammy. A truly brilliant performance from David Newman as Gately emphasises the role his character plays as a fulcrum in the dynamics between the three men; I wanted to put him in my pocket and take him somewhere safe.
Behind all the laughter, of course, lies the fact that that safe place doesn’t really exist for those who have faced head-on the insanity of war; indeed it perhaps doesn’t really exist for anyone in a world where such wars can be waged. As British soldiers are set to start return from Afghanistan, the central messages of McClure’s play are as relevant as ever. Go and see it.