BWW Review: SOLDIER ON at Berkeley Street Theatre
SOLDIER ON comes to us from the UK, where a variety of audiences, military and non-military alike, have had the chance to enjoy its easy humour and satisfying plot. It tells the story of a group of servicepeople and their families who have come together to talk through their issues and put on a show. If the play within a play sounds pretentious, it's not - SOLDIER ON is effortlessly accessible and universally charming, even to those of us with no connection to the subject matter.
The story begins when Harry (David Solomon), a TV actor turned stage director, reaches out to The Royal British Legion with the suggestion of putting on a play starring members of the military community. Although some at the Legion are skeptical, Harry gets the green light, and under close supervision holds auditions for a project he believes will be both creative and therapeutic.
Harry's assembled cast includes injured veterans and weary wives, people with families and single people, medics and motorcyclists and shoplifters. They work together to build a play from scratch, in the process revealing some of their most painful experiences and deepest fears. (Think of The Chorus Line with a lot of swearing and acronyms). Each of the stories is touching, poignant, and, moreover, honest - the power of SOLDIER ON comes from its refusal to sugarcoat or romanticise trauma. This is not a Heritage Minute, this is real.
It is really real - the cast of SOLDIER ON includes several real-life veterans, a couple of whom make good fun of their prosthetic limbs on stage. It is hard sometimes to tell where real experience ends and playwrighting begins.
As they write and rehearse their show, the cast form a sense of community and solidarity. For many, the process is therapeutic. (This is true behind the scenes as well: SOLDIER ON is co-produced by the Soldiers' Arts Academy, which connects serving and ex-serving military personnel to potentially healing opportunities in the creative and performing arts). Relationships are mended, passions are reignited.
If this sounds overly optimistic that's because, I think, it is. SOLDIER ON seems to suggest that there's no problem that can't be solved by a song and dance. By the end of the play, everyone is well, or at least on the right track. An act of inexcusable violence is brushed off. It's a blow to the realism that gives SOLDIER ON its strength in the first place - why tell such complex, varied stories only to wrap them all up in the same tidy bow at the end?
Moreover, the play takes an entirely uncritical view of the military engagements that led, indirectly, to its creation in the first place. Treating PTSD with theatre is a brilliant idea, but we'd be better off trying to minimize opportunities for PTSD in the first place. Furthermore, SOLDIER ON makes not even a gesture of sympathy to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan troops and civilians who were killed or wounded in far greater numbers than the Americans, Brits, and Canadians who led campaigns against them.
But that might be a story for another play. SOLDIER ON has a mission: to highlight the healing power of the performing arts. This it does exceedingly well, and with a great deal of charm, humour, and truth.
Amanda Faber and the Soldiers' Arts Acadmy, Roland Gossage, & Jennifer Grose's SOLDIER ON runs through 8 December at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.