Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan may essentially be over, but Hannah Moscovitch isn’t going to let us forget it. This Is War, her powerful if flawed new play at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, is a lacerating look at the psychological toll of combat in a war where the enemy is sometimes invisible and soldiers often can’t tell if the person approaching them is a suicide bomber or just an innocent kid on a bike.
The drama – an intense 90-minute one-act, tautly directed by Richard Rose – focuses on four soldiers in a Canadian infantry platoon. They are each being questioned by an unseen, unheard interviewer about a possible atrocity committed in the Panjwaii desert during a joint op with the Afghan National Army against the Taliban. Moscovitch juxtaposes their terse replies with their memories of events leading up to the incident – scenes as sharp and fragmented as shrapnel, that come together to form a picture of unbearable stress.
Beneath her tough, sarcastic demeanour, Master Corporal Tanya Young (Lisa Berry) is haunted by her accidental shooting, while on patrol, of a five-year-old girl. Her feelings of guilt eventually prompt her to take a course of action that ends up imperilling the life of a comrade. The comrade, naive young private Jonny Henderson (Ian Lake), has also been traumatized, having witnessed a horrific death on his first day “outside the wire.” For comfort, he turns to Tanya and his boyish infatuation with her clouds his judgment.
Even their gruff superior, Captain Stephen Hughes (Ari Cohen), can’t cope with all the bloodshed he’s seen. He, too, makes decisions in combat based on personal feelings, which have unforeseen consequences. Meanwhile, the base’s mild-mannered medic, Sergeant Chris Anders (Sergio Di Zio), does his best to monitor their mental health, but in the end he’s just as rattled as they are.
Moscovitch draws on her experience as one of the writers for CBC Radio’s Afghanada, which also dramatized the daily experiences of Canadian soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. In some respects, This Is War could be a darker, dirtier episode in the series, replete with F-bombs and rude talk about sweaty testicles.
But the much-lauded playwright also injects some of the audacity that characterized her best-known play, East of Berlin. Her troubled soldiers, while sympathetic, are a far cry from being exemplary members of the Canadian Forces. Tanya’s bouts of sex with two of her male cohorts, which complicate their working relationships, could even be used by misogynists as an argument against having women in the military.
But Moscovitch isn’t out to tarnish images, only to make her soldiers more human. It’s not that they’re ordinary folks from places like Hamilton and Red Deer that makes them identifiable, but the fact that they can’t stomach war any better than a pacifist. Cohen’s Capt. Hughes may bristle at any suggestion that the Afghanistan mission is a mistake, but he also clearly can’t reconcile his duties with his emotions.
The play’s problems are mainly structural. Moscovitch gives us each of her four characters’ versions of events in succession. At first, it looks like we’re going to get a Rashomon-style presentation of four wildly differing perspectives, but it turns out the perspectives aren’t different enough and near identical scenes are needlessly repeated.
The acting, however, is rock solid. Berry is formidable as Tanya, while Lake is almost tragically callow as Jonny. Cohen plays the captain with a drill sergeant’s lungs and an easy macho swagger. Di Zio brings a laid-back, Woody Harrelson-like quality to the gay Christian medic.
Set designer Camellia Koo has swathed the Tarragon’s tiny Extra Space in camouflage netting, making the space even tighter. At times the actors are so close to the audience that you instinctively lean back, and when they aim their guns, you flinch. Rebecca Picherack’s crackerjack lighting snaps us back and forth from hot, dusty Panjwaii to a harsh interview spotlight.
Moscovitch says her play was spurred partly by a Globe and Mail editorial urging the Canadian theatre to start grappling with our involvement in Afghanistan. This Is War more than rises to the challenge.
This Is War runs until Feb. 3.