“Have you ever been offered to do porn?” There’s a line you might not expect to hear in a play about wounded, injured and sick (WIS) soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
But The Two Worlds of Charlie F is not your usual work of documentary theatre, and in this unflinching play created with and starring WIS miltiary personnel, you’ll learn about all the hidden aspects of the extra tour of duty that is rehabilitation. This includes the curious fact that double amputees are more likely to be recruited by pornography producers than those who have lost just one leg.
Most theatre productions display two worlds at once – the world of the characters and the story, and the world of the actors showing us that story. In The Two Worlds of Charlie F, representation and reality overlap and blur. In a way, it’s a throwback to how plays based on real life used to make their way to the stage before verbatim theatre caught on. Owen Sheers, the Welsh playwright, and other members of the creative team conducted in-depth interviews with those who served in Afghanistan, then created fictional characters to channel their stories.
The difference is that many of the medically discharged personnel who are in the cast are playing these fictionalized version of themselves. It’s a theatre therapy technique, brought to a larger audience after a two-night performance in 2012 turned into a touring production. (The Two Worlds of Charlie F comes to Toronto after having won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.)
Chief among the soldiers-turned-actors is Cassidy Little, a Canadian who lost the lower half of his right leg while serving with the British Royal Marines. He stars as the Corporal Charlie Fowler of the title, who is also Canadian and has a similar backstory. The play opens with a harrowing scene, shown in silhouette, of him waking up in a military hospital. While he’s physically in the U.K., mentally he is still in Afghanistan – and he howls profanities at a nurse he mistakes for a Taliban torturer.
We then flash back to Fowler and other soldiers as they progress from enlisting to action. In the second half, we witness their equally harrowing recoveries and the effect their wounds – physical and mental – have on relationships back home. (There are also professional actors in the cast, but when it comes to those who have not lost limbs, it takes a glance at your program to discover who is civilian and who is military.)
As a piece of drama, Charlie F is not as satisfyingly structured as some similar works to emerge from the U.K., such as The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, about a Scottish regiment in Iraq. Little’s character aside, most of the characters in Charlie F are only sketched in, and many are tossed aside after being introduced. Lance Corporal Simi Yates (played by retired lance corporal Maurillia Simpson), who as a young girl in Trinidad saw the Queen and decided she’d move to where Her Majesty lived and become a soldier, occupies much of our attention for the first half, but then disappointingly disappears.
What makes this show so strong, however, are that the shocking revelations come out of the mouths of those who have lived these stories. When Charlie Fowler lists the side-effects of the many drugs he is taking, he stops to consider one – suicidal thoughts. “Like I need more of those,” he says, a chilling line in light of the Afghanistan veterans who have recently taken their own lives in Canada.
Other observations are more lighthearted and touching, such as when Fowler and double-amputee Leroy Jenkins (played by double amputee Daniel Shaw) compare and contrast their stumps and porn prospects. This is not something that professional actors could pull off in the same way – and it’s not disparaging to note that this play is as much about men and women acting in it as the characters they play. Lily Philips’s choreographed sequences, which draw attention to both the characters’ strength and physical limitations, are the most memorable moments – especially a touching waltz between men in wheelchairs and their girlfriends.
The two worlds of the title refer to those in the armed forces who were or are on the ground in Afghanistan, and those who only read about it back home. Canada’s military mission there may officially end in March, and those of us in the second world may want to forget about it and move on, but those in the first cannot. “We don’t live in two worlds; we live in one,” says Charlie Fowler, or Cassidy Little, or both.
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