The plays I like to direct tend to feature people being forced by their natures and circumstances into a conflict they can’t avoid. Since, one way or another, life seems sooner or later to plonk most of us into that boat, it feels natural to conclude that one reason we go to the theatre is to bear witness to the tough stuff of being human.
Certainly, I see shows all the time in the hope of discovering inspiring stories of survival and renewal in adversity. And I want the playwright to let me have it with both barrels – the blast preferably charged with a recoil of humour to ease the acute discomfort of seeing life in all its unpredictable brutality.
Blue on Blue by Chips Hardy is a funny play about serious stuff with a simple enough plot. Gulf War veteran Moss was severely wounded in action by the catastrophic cock-up known as friendly fire (blue on blue in the trade). Moss has taken pity on his highly-strung, on-probation nephew, Carver, and they’re sharing Moss’ tiny council flat. Carver has his own mental health challenges. Into this claustrophobic, dysfunctional and uncompromisingly masculine world comes a young healthworker, Marta. Good intentions lead to questionable decisions; relationships turn volatile; difficult consequences become unavoidable.
I don’t feel especially drawn to plays about soldiers (although, come to think of it, it was acting in a school production of Willis Hall’s mighty The Long & The Short & The Tall that turned me on to acting). But ours is, regrettably, an era of wars conducted in the name of our security. Like all wars, ours have brutal consequences for innocents and combatants alike. Perhaps it’s the universal, mythic aspect I am pulled to; the eternal truth that our choices bind us to our fate, and the boyish longing for a life of soldiering can lead to an adult nightmare of horror.
Perhaps it’s the universal, mythic aspect I am pulled to; the eternal truth that our choices bind us to our fate, and the boyish longing for a life of soldiering can lead to an adult nightmare of horror.
A few years ago at the Park Theatre, I directed Ross Ericsson’s Casualties, a terrific play about an IED team in Afghanistan. In that show one of our actors drew deeply upon his experiences as a youthful conscript in the South African army. And in Blue on Blue, playing Moss the wheelchair-bound legless ex-soldier, we’re lucky to have ex-infantryman Darren ‘Swifty’ Swift. The squaddie version of Swifty stood six feet two inches tall until, in 1991, the IRA lobbed a coffee-jar bomb at him and instantly he was four feet six. So it’s safe to say we’ve found the right actor for the role.
Our production is blessed to have the support of BLESMA, the charity for servicemen and women who’ve lost limbs through combat. Swifty is a BLESMA stalwart, and during the run of Blue on Blue at the Tristan Bates Theatre, we look forward to welcoming many BLESMA comrades.
But while raising awareness of a great cause is an honourable activity, Chips Hardy didn’t write Blue on Blue to spotlight the issue. Rather, the piece came out of seeing his mother living her life in a wheelchair, his son (actor Tom Hardy) dealing with his own dark side, and a deep fascination with the human capacity for endurance under difficult conditions. More than anything, Chips wanted to write a play about people living through seriously tough life situations, yet still finding sources of laughter in their agony. Naturally, the play had to be a comedy.
In Blue on Blue, Chips takes a very compassionate look at the pressures people face making healthy relationships with themselves and their fellows. The Tristan Bates may be tiny in comparison with Wyndham’s, and we can’t claim to have a high-tech set with special digital knobs on, but I’m chuffed to be directing Blue on Blue a stone’s throw from People, Places and Things, another wonderful, enriching play about mental health and compulsive-addictive, co-dependent modernity. At a time when government blindly refuses to respond with compassion to the model of addiction and compulsive self-harm as mental illness, the London theatre is taking the lead in telling stories that inspire and give people hope in a dark time.