Adriano Shaplin is only 24, but already the American postgraduate student is the writer/ actor/director of the award-winning play Pugilist Specialist which was a critical hit at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. This disturbing four-hander about a covert military operation by US marines in an unnamed country (but for which we should read Afghanistan and/or Iraq) is now about to open in the West End before going on a national tour.
The play follows a top-secret operation by American soldiers as they plan the political assassination of an Arab leader. The hand-picked specialists of the title - a communications expert who never disobeys an order, a cocky sniper (Shaplin) and explosives expert, who has gone public about sexual harassment in the US military - are led by an avuncular colonel. It has the simplest of sets, with a few benches moved around the stage to denote briefing room, operations room and enemy territory. The dialogue, like the action, is snappy and smart.
One might fear that the self-confessed angry young man could be full of himself, but in conversation Shaplin proves to be modest, personable and given to quiet reflection rather than spouting soundbites. I ask what the starting point for Pugilist Specialist was, which Shaplin started writing last March. "I was watching a television documentary about Saddam Hussein's 'mistress'," he explains, "and it spent an hour telling us he was impotent. I mean, what was that about?
"When you look at how the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is presented, if it's not about effeminisation of the enemy by talking about obstructing or penetrating them, or talking about their hyper, out-of-control masculinity, then they're animalising them. The American media delighted in highlighting the fact that Saddam was found in a spiderhole and they quoted over and over a soldier saying he was like a rat in a hole. The metaphor is to highlight an ideology."
The play is not a straightforward story of heroes righting wrongs. "I wanted to deal with the 'fighting is fucking' trope, but I also wanted to find a different angle, something Romantic. Something closer to a Moby Dick narrative, say. He respects and hates the whale in equal measure, he wants to destroy the whale, but is it that he really wants to destroy himself? In reality, it's that we require an enemy to define our national character." But Shaplin was at pains to avoid an obvious goodies-and-baddies approach in Pugilist Specialist and the play is much more complex and challenging as a result. "I believe strongly in the anti-war movement, but in no way do I want this play to be used as an anti-American statement, because it's not.
"I felt that if I had, say, an American soldier and an Iraqi civilian, the left-liberal audience would immediately disidentify with the soldier. So there are four American soldiers to identify with and people's relationships with them are much more complicated. The play becomes a dialectic with four characters who have radically different views about war but share a common military language." It's a language - by turns poetic, allegorical, comic and brutal - that the playwright had to learn by studying training manuals for US marines.
Shaplin grew up in middle-class Vermont, the eldest child of an occupational therapist mother and a father whose ill health prevented him from working. Although his high school had an active theatre department, Shaplin chose instead to join the town's theatre group - "I couldn't bear to perform in front of my peers, but that's pretty normal, right?" - and graduated from high school a year early, so desperate was he to start university where he thought he might flourish.
But when he got to the country's premier liberal arts college, it wasn't all Shaplin hoped for. "I arrived at Sarah Lawrence fresh out of the vibrant, experimental theatre scene in my home town," he says. "I thought it would be a chance to explore ideas of Artaud and Stanislavsky; it turned out to be a department doing revivals of Hair and Grand Hotel. Keep in mind that I was 17 and a very angry young man and whatnot.
"I now realise I had only the briefest understanding of Artaud and others, but I dropped out after one semester and started doing an anthropology degree instead." Shaplin now teaches acting at Berkeley in California. But fortunately his falling-out with the theatre department at Sarah Lawrence had an immediate, galvanising effect and Shaplin formed the Riot Group theatre company, with which he has developed all his work as a writer. "A lot of it came from necessity. We didn't have money, we didn't have scripts, we didn't have costumes, lighting, a theatre." He adds sardonically: "It was site-specific material against the theatre department."
The Riot Group ensemble that performs and co-directs Pugilist Specialist is essentially the same now as when the group was set up at Sarah Lawrence - his flatmates Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman who, with Shaplin, play the three young Marines sent on the top-secret, dangerous mission inside enemy territory, plus Paul Schnabel, who plays the middle-aged Colonel directing the mission. "My frustration is that we've been labelled a student company, or a young company," says Shaplin in angry mode. "I feel that it minimises the work we've done and a lot of paying out of our own pockets to perform in the past seven years, so I deliberately now write roles for older actors." Then his good humour returns. "In truth I usually write roles for people I know. I steal things they say around the apartment."
He also writes strong roles for women and, as Pugilist Specialist develops, we see the crucial importance of Viola's Lieutenant Emma Stein, a rising star who blows the whistle on sexual harassment in the US military and eventually pays the price for putting her honour before the regiment's. "I'm struck by how often women are blamed for the downfall of men in modern plays," says Shaplin. "What is that about? Stein's one flaw is that she believes the plan."
Amusingly, for British audiences at least, the ultra professional Stein is the antithesis of Private Jessica Lynch, whose inability to read a road map would have earned her a spell in the glasshouse in the British Army, but in the States has led to a medal for bravery and the full Hollywood treatment. British audiences have certainly responded more readily to Shaplin's work. "You have the vocabulary to understand political theatre," he says. "I think you also know that the opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is rampant in the States and there is less of a difference between the British and American people than comes out in the media."
And then Shaplin looks angry again. "The liberal trope is that if only people knew the truth about Bush he would be out of office. But what I want to say is that the reason he's in power and Saddam isn't is because he has the bigger budget, the bigger military and all the historical metaphors on his side. He has the better story, that's all."
'Pugilist Specialist': Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100), Thursday to 7 February; then touringReuse content