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  Living Unknown Soldier
Arcola, London

Miriam Gillinson
posted 27 February 2008

Living Unknown Soldier starts with a warning: this play will tell ‘a truth – or a version of the truth – or someone’s memory of the truth’. The memory in question is that of a WW1 soldier, who has forgotten both his identity and the war that stole it from him. Simple 8’s ambitious and fluidly realised adaptation of Jean-Yves Le Naour's Le Soldat Inconnu Vivant tracks the (real-life) fate of this soldier and the families who came forward to claim him. Though the soldier’s fate is compelling, it is the circling families I will remember. Their blinding desire to make this lost man their own is frightening and sad - and does more to evoke the desolate destruction caused by war than any graphic reenactment ever will. Though the company fails to bring all these surrounding stories to life, enough emotion and energy is generated here to do real justice to this compelling and important historical event.

The opening is not promising: Tony Guilfoyle’s narrator sets the scene with a self-indulgent monologue about the slippery nature of memory, undermined further still by a shocking French accent. Thankfully this is followed by one of the strongest images I’ve seen on-stage for a while: a hand bursts through the trench sacks centre stage and a scared soldier emerges silently into the chaos around him. The lost soldier contrasts powerfully with the bustling scene on-stage, and his isolated confusion floods into the audience. This uneasy connection between soldier and audience lingers throughout the show; the soldier’s confused memory is our own – a fact that Armesto’s confident, observant and detailed direction never lets us forget.

This devised piece is inevitably uneven and both the script and actors hit some rough patches. Because there are so many roles here, the parts are sometimes distinguished crassly and broadly. Instead of honest and believable portrayals, we get dodgy accents and large physical gestures. I understand that everything on-stage is shaped by memory and that we are only seeing the characters the way the novelist/company/director might perceive them. However, this is still an adaptation of a factual account and I think we need to feel these characters if this piece is to soar. Those parts given more space to breathe work well, with Tony Guilfoyle’s Doctor holding the show together. Guilfoyle puts in a commanding but restrained performance, quietly and firmly protecting the soldier who cannot protect himself.

The depiction of the soldier is also patchy and it’s when silent that he expresses himself best. His spoken sections are strange – a lot of the time he sounds almost retarded, though I hope this wasn’t the intention. I’m not convinced the actors are certain what they’re going for here – and whilst some are comfortable with the soldier’s willful ambiguity, others really struggle. Tom Mison inhabits the soldier first and with the greatest success: the contrast between Mison’s scared but compelling soldier and his robust reporter only strengthens his performance. He acts with a permanent twinkle and is quick to charm his audience – a trick the other actors would do well to take on.

As the characters struggle to convince both doctor and audience of their reliability, we begin to realise it is the people we like whose memories we trust. It is a sobering thought – and one which can be explored well on-stage. Armesto is sensitive to the stage’s unique ability to morph at will: props transform effortlessly, actors slip from one role to the next and time slips by. Both script and production successfully capture the futility of memory - and the reliance our generation in particular have on inherited truths about the war. Living Unknown Soldier blasts home the idea that war – any war - is a memory and responsibility we all have and one we’d do well not to forget.

Till 15 March 2008.


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