Ray Hewitt watched BBC1's Imagine... Theatre of War, shown last night as the first programme in a new series of this arts strand which "aims to capture the power and effect of the arts and the people who have changed our way of looking at the world."
How do you drag the shattered bone, flesh and pain of Afghanistan into a world untouched by the carnage of war?
Enter stage left, writer Owen Sheers and the cast of Bravo 22 Company with their production of The Two Worlds of Charlie F. a play about troops wounded in The Helmand with a unique twist in its plot... the actors are playing themselves.
Last night’s Imagine on BBC One followed a group of ex-soldiers as they struggled to cope with dress rehearsals, angry producers and bodies and minds that had been smashed hard by Taliban IEDs. The programme’s glitzy showbiz preamble was cut short by High-Def combat footage that spewed raw life into the war in Afghanistan and showed us kids in yellow suits crawling through mud as they clung to machine guns and tried to stay alive.
The rotor thump of Chinooks faded into shot-away limbs, post-traumatic stress and a room filled with smiles. 'They’ve lived their war. Now they have to perform it,' Owen Sheers told us as a group of young men and women mingled outside a rehearsal studio with crutches, wheelchairs and a new found surprise that they were going to be actors. ‘We’re used to being asked to do things in the army,’ one said grinning at the camera. ‘Operation Certain Death? Yeah I’m up for that.’
Individual stories were dragged away from the melee and chaos of the constant rehearsing and laid bare so that we could look into them.
‘A soldier trod on an IED killing him instantly and blowing steel into my skull.’
‘They thought I was Pink Mist. Nothing left of me.’
‘I don’t go out much, as sometimes I piss myself because of the pain.’
‘People think you’re a freak.’
But each tragedy was delivered with a grin and lack of self-pity. There were no poor-me or this-isn’t-fair moments. There was just the need to get it right and to stand back in the line.
There were times when the play’s director, Stephen Rayne, battled with his acting troops and his frustrations spilled onto the theatre floor as he pleaded with a traumatised veteran to not get too drunk at his sister’s wedding. The damaged soldier fired a grin into the west-end veteran, promising him he’d be back for the main performance. And he kept his word, not wanting to let his mates down.
We were given a glimpse of the final production’s opening night: cutaway scenes of a wounded Marine screaming, a soldier from Trinidad who’d gotten her wish to live in the same country as the Queen when she grew up, and in the end a feeling that in spite of the life-changing tours they have endured, the men and women of Bravo 22 Company still stand tall.
One of the soldiers said, ‘When we leave Afghanistan, a part of us stays there.’ And perhaps it does.
But, from the brief glimpse I witnessed last night, I’d say the actors of The Two Worlds of Charlie F., which is produced by Alice Driver, have brought a small piece of Afghanistan over here. And for that, I thank them.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F. previously shown at Theatre Royal Haymarket in January, where it received five-star reviews, will be on tour this summer. If you can't make it to a venue to see the play, you can watch it in full via The Space.
Ray Hewitt served in the British Army and deployed on Operation Granby (AKA Desert Storm) in 1991, after which he was diagnosed with PTSD. His book, Yesterday's Boy, which explores his personal battle with war and mental health, will be published in 2013. You can follow Ray's blog, Blood in the Sand, to find out more about him and read extracts from his biography.