Our Boys by Jonathan Lewis is a two-act play that was first performed in London on 1993, and subsequently won a number of awards. The Adelaide Repertory Company’s production, directed by David Sims, is the Australian premiere of this thoroughly enjoyable, moving, challenging and unique play. My litmus test in regard to seeing theatre and films these days is whether or not it has moved me emotionally. In the case of Our Boys it did most profoundly and in a way that caught me by surprise. Set in a military hospital in the 1984, we follow the trials and tribulations of 6 war veterans. On the surface, especially the first act, the play is full of crude, smutty and vulgar British humour, similar to other hospital drama-comedies such as Carry on Doctor (1967) Peter Nichol’s The National Health (1969).
Some may dismiss this play as just another case of ‘men behaving badly’, nonetheless, something else is at work here. Underneath all this, and is partly the motivation for such behaviour is genuine fear – and specifically the fear of impotency. I’m finding it difficult to think of other dramatic works that concentrate on masculine impotency – a taboo topic that few men would even discuss let alone admit too. In a theatrical world that is often led by feminist ‘equality’ issue this play is a sober reminder that there are tragic contemporary male stories to be told as well; in a way it makes the play unique in contemporary theatre.
Our Boys, however, does join rather a long and brilliant heritage of other war and/or post-war traumatic stress dramas. This includes – R. C. Sherriff’s Journey End (1928) and W. Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered (1932). There are also William Wyler’s Academy Award Best Film winner The Best Years of our Lives (1946) and Fred Zimmerman’s The Men (1950), which was Marlon Brando’s debit film. Speaking of Brando it is an often neglected factor in regards Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) that one reason why Stanley and his buddies are so violent is partly associated with 2WW experiences. Other works include Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959), John Frankenheimer’s brilliant and unsurpassable The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Barry England’s Conduct Unbecoming (1969), David Rabes’ Sticks and Bones (1971) and Streamers (1976), Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade (1977), Hal Ashbey’s Coming Home (1978), Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Simon Stevens’ Motortown (2006) and Stella Feehily’s O Go My Man (2006). Closer to home, there are such Australian dramas as Sumner Locke Elliott Rusty Bugles (1948), George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964), John Power’s The Last of the Knucklemen (1978), and Bill Bennetts’ A Street to Die (1985). However, the film that has the most immediate impact on Our Boys is the Michael Cimino’s devastating brilliant The Deer Hunter (1978).
Towards the end of Our Boys first act, in an attempt to cheer up the wheel-chair bound character of Lee, who is often inarticulate due to being shot in the head, the men stage a beer drinking competition called ‘Beer Hunter’ after the film The Deer Hunter. The drinking game parallels with devastating and highly memorable Russian roulette game in the The Deer Hunter. It is due to this game and the celebrations that the men find themselves in trouble, facing military discipline for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and expulsion from the army. With their self-esteem and sense of potency already vulnerable this new attack on their individual security brings forward issues of class warfare and scapegoating. The resident officer is blamed for being a back-stabbing informer – but he is innocent. The actual informer is one of their own, and without giving it away, is the character who has the most to lose. He betrays his friends and lies, blaming the officer; when the truth is finally revealed the sense of betrayed loyalty becomes violent in its retaliation. Surprise, surprise – not.
Our Boys as well as the works cited above all involve “men behaving badly”, physically and emotionally, often due to past or current war experiences. The individual stories and characters highlight struggles for self-esteem, power and potency. In this masculine rationale if you do not have these things then you don’t have an identity and viability to make positive and active contributions to society. Whilst ‘feminists’ may rage, nonetheless, masculine identity, health and well-being is still firmly tied to these issue, which are generally the domain of the work-place. Men still are (too often) defined by the work place and what they do (or not do) for a living. What does one do when self-esteem, power, potency, viability, credibility and identity is taken away by things that are beyond your control by murderous violence – physical and/or psychological? Does one resort to the betrayal of loyalties, revenge, in order to satisfy delusional prejudices and self-preservation? In Our Boys these issues rise to the surface, especially in the second act. Ironically, there are good outcomes for some of the patients in Our Boys – but by no means not all – such is life. This mixture of fateful and fortuitous endings only serves to add to the overall greater complexity of the play
Throughout this admirable and ultimately extremely moving production the voice of Margaret Thatcher (post-Falkland War) is heard, stating things like ‘we must take care of our defenses in order to prepare for any situation’. But how can you prepare for sudden and inexplicable violence? One could argue, perhaps, that these men are in the military and subsequently are trained for the violence of war. But this is not necessarily so; not all military personnel are trained for and do active service; and yet are still targets for violence. Nor do all military personnel, especially when working in a domestic and local world, necessarily expect sudden violent acts of internal terrorism. The final scene of Our Boys attempts to articulate the ‘horror’ of home-front terrorist violence. It is the most moving as well as frightening moment of the play. The harrowing experience and subsequent trauma of home-front terrorist violence is stunningly realized in the final confession by Joe, the patient who has been in hospital the longest, and beautifully acted by Adam Tuominen. Joe has an inexplicable disease that has resulted in the removal of one of his fingers. This mysterious disease, however, could be read as metaphor for HIV/AIDS – or other cancers – as it seems as if it will never be cured. Or is it the disease inside his brain, the never-ending post-traumatic disorder due to the incredible violence he experienced. Joe’s story is partly based on a real-life event in a bombing in London by the IRA. As the story unfiled I found I was gasping and shaking my head with the sheer horror of the violence. How could anyone get over such things? The thing is – like an incurable disease – you don’t.
Congratulations to the Adelaide Repertory Theatre, David Sims, and all the actors involved in this terrific production – Adam Tuominen, Patrick Martin, James Edwards, Lee Cook, Nick Duddy and Leighton Vogt. Thank you for providing an opportunity to see this truly unique and moving modern play. It has remained with me, as it did with my Asian-Australian companion last night, who is studying English here in Adelaide. Admittedly, some of it went over his head, and I was a bit concerned as the Asian imitations in the ‘Beer Hunter’ scene, nonetheless, this was the scene he liked the most. Go figure. He also, like myself, was very impressed with Adam Tuominen’s Joe and Patrick Martin’s Lee. Thank you.