TheatreN16, London – until 11 November 2017
Captain Agnes Bennett (Safron Beck) is very efficient at her job. As a Army Notification Officer, it is her duty to personally meet with relatives whose family have died while in active service of the Armed Forces. With her structured, pre-prepared speech, she is the epitiome of the world-renowned British reserve, naturally keeping a stiff upper lip on- and off-duty. In terms of being a practitioner of breaking bad news, she would have been a natural as a doctor treating terminal diseases. But after 11 visits to bereaved relatives – or ‘knocks’ as Bennett calls them – can even someone as seasoned as her continue to keep emotions in check without long-term effects?
Written by Martin McNamara and directed by Rebecca Lyon, I.E.D. poses many questions about empathy and connection – their suitability to certain vocations and the ramifications of their absence. Through Bennett, we can see the pros and cons of the demarcation of emotions and how this is interpreted by others.
Known amongst the platoon as “The Angel of Death”, Bennett’s superior officer Major Liam Lawless (Matt Betts) foists Private Iain Maginnis (Jordan Fyffe) upon her for her next assigment. As a soldier who served in the same unit as the deceased, it is thought that Maginnis would be a welcome presence – able to offer first-hand anecdotes about what was happening out on the field. Throughout Bennett’s debriefing of Maginnis, it is obvious that she has very firm ideas about protocol regarding ‘engaging’ with the bereaved and some unconventional – if not officially condoned – ideas about how to ‘switch off’ afterwards.
There’s a running ‘joke’ throughout the play about Bennett’s aversion to tea. Asides from being an indicator about how none of the characters truly know her, the offering of tea is subliminally a pancea, a beverage to drink when receiving news – especially of the bad kind. By not drinking tea with the people she visits, she doesn’t spend ‘quality time’ with them or share their grief at an empathetic level. No tea, no passive transference of emotions. It’s significant that when Bennett deliberately spills tea on Maginnis and tells him that he “stinks of milk”, it’s a possible allusion to Macbeth‘s “milk of human kindness” – the inference being his empathy doesn’t make him a suitable candidate for the job in hand. In Bennett’s mind, her aversion to ‘touchy-feely’ sentiment is a mark of respect for the bereaved, leaving them and herself a modicum of dignity.
While Bennett isn’t emotionally demonstrative, as someone who is attuned to people’s emotions during her visits, she has an intuitive understanding about the ‘messier’, non-rational side of human emotions and what happens as a consequence. Maginnis thinks her ‘predictions’ as cynical – an understanding borne out of her own past and circumstances that is gently teased at in the play.
As a woman in a typically male-dominated profession, McNamara shows how the male perspective finds it impossible to separate Bennett’s status as a soldier with that as a woman and at various junctures, three different men make their own assessments about her. This being the case, it’s important that a female director such as Lyon has ‘ownership’ of the play, so that she can reveal the truth of – to use a quote in I.E.D. – “what isn’t on the page” about being a woman. Especially in a complex character like Bennett, even when she isn’t saying anything, micro-facial expressions and body language say so much – more so than her statements when she has to toe the line. The official ambivalance about women in the theatre of war and Bennett’s own age being a point to comment on highlights her own frustration at not being seen as a ‘proper soldier’, yet expected to exude traditional ‘feminine’ qualities.
However, it’s through Bennett’s own ‘distraction time’ with Andrew Jennings (Dickon Farmar) which bookends the play that we’re able to join the dots and see her ’emotional unavailability’ in the most intimate of situations. There is also a subtle connection implied between Bennett and Ivy (Sarah Jane Charlton) – a woman ‘familiar’ with men in the barracks. Both have a preference of playing classical music over the pop variety, both have no interest in the lives of others beyond what happens in bed. Why this is the case for Bennett is the real question that permeates the play, though no answer is explicitly given. As for Maginnis, there are superficial similarities betwen his past and ‘Brick’ in a Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, raising questions in the play about relationships in the Services and their double-edged nature.
Asides from Lyon’s direction and McNamara’s writing, a large part of the play’s success can be attributed to Beck, who stepped into the role of Bennett when the original actor dropped out. Personally, I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off the role of Bennett so deftly, with the understated yet perceptible way she conveys ‘control’ and subjugated emotions vying for overall influence.