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Pugilist Specialist
Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Group: The Riot Group


Dolan Cummings

Some aspects of the plot of Pugilist Specialist, like the title itself, don't make a whole lot of sense, but also like the title, that isn't necessarily the point. The play's effect is more visceral than intellectual.

That isn't to say that Pugilist Specialist is light on ideas, however. Far from it. Like previous Riot Group shows, Wreck the Airline Barrier and Victory at the Dirt Palace, Pugilist Specialist is an intellectual onslaught that just doesn't have the time or the inclination to make sense in any conventional way.

Instead, we are presented with four military archetypes trying to make sense of their own roles in a covert operation to assassinate a foreign target, known as the Bearded Lady. Such is the inscrutable nature of US military bureaucracy, however, that their musings shed more light on American culture in general than on the operation itself.

Mostly such insights are achieved through smart dialogue - though most lines are delivered to the audience, the hard-working actors neatly express the tense relations between the characters. The frisson between the macho slob and the uptight feminist is particularly effective, as both characters find themselves playing up to the other's expectations. There is barely room for them to do anything else: as soldiers, they are not valued for their individuality, and it soon turns out they aren't really valued at all.

Only Stein, the feminist, entertains thoughts of dissent, but having been through the media wringer before, she knows that her dissent too is a cliché. Still, her very desire to act, to take responsibility, is subversive in an organisation based on unthinking obedience tempered only by ass-covering. I don't know whether this is a fair representation of the US military; writer Adriano Shaplin admits he doesn't have 'a fetish for evidence'. But as a broader reflection on the War on Terror, with its endless prevarications and bureaucratic inevitabilities, Pugilist Specialist is certainly convincing.

It is a political play about the absence of politics. It doesn't exactly make sense, but then neither does the War on Terror. Go figure.


James Panton


The Riot Group return to the Edinburgh Fringe festival with what is perhaps their most complex play to date. The Pugilist Specialist presents us with four marines brought together on a covert 'black op' to assassinate ''Big 'Stache', codenamed 'The Bearded Lady'.

Lieutenant Emma Stein is an explosives expert who is all too aware that her role in the marines is to appear in front of the cameras as the token woman: 'I polish my teeth more often than my boots'. She has frequented the cover of Time and she even presented a recruitment video for minorities: 'The Marines, historically, have been leaders in racial and gender integration......' But most of all Lt Stein is a soldier who loves the order of the plan.

Lieutenant Travis Freud is a sniper: he is a loner, macho marine who disdains orders, 'a cocky, undisciplined lout.' For Freud every enemy looks the same. He likes to carry a gun, but most of all he loves to kill.

Lieutenant Grave Studdard is a communications expert: a soldier's soldier who joined the marines so he wouldn't have to think, a man who listens in to chatter all day and so chooses to remain silent. His job is to record everything without fail, and to doctor the recordings as needs require. His first love is following orders.

The commander, Colonel Johns, is a leader of the new school. He's a modern soldier who understands the need to empathise with his troop and the enemy: 'You need empathy to fight a war'. Most of all, Col John loves the enemy: 'They either love us or hate us. Either way we're spreading love.'

This is a play that purports to describe the feminisation of the enemy in contemporary culture. The Bearded Lady can be recognised by his 'vaguely seductive quality....bedroom eyes', and Col Johns warns that all a soldier needs to learn is 'love thy enemy, and learn to fuck her slowly until she ceases to breath.'

But this play is also, perhaps more profoundly, about the feminisation and disintegration of the military itself. How, we are asked, can a war be fought and enemies annihilated by a military that is not allowed to hate the enemy, but must rather show them respect at all times: 'As their race is the chosen body of our righteous intervention,' Col Johns explains to his troops, 'we will honour their unfortunate wishes and make every effort to preserve the dignity of their ravished corpses.' And how can a war be fought on behalf of a nation that is internally divided, which celebrates empathy over glory: 'We've got a nation of teenage poets cultivating a rich crop of sensitivity. Where do I get my soldiers?' Johns complains.

The Pugilist Specialist offers a profound insight into the nature of contemporary Western interventions: killing the enemy is not the object - indeed, we discover that this is not a crack assassination unit at all: Stein was chosen for the ease with which she might be manipulated; Freud was chosen as the sniper who came bottom of his class. Killing the enemy, it seems, would bring an end to the reason for the mission itself - a mission of being seen to act, a mission whose aim is to generate a sense of purpose for itself, and for the audience back home, without ever needing to, or wishing to, achieve its stated goals.

As might be expected from the Riot Group, Pugilist Specialist is an at times poetically-written play. It has a wit and intellectualism that leaves the audience quite awed.


31 July to 25 August.

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