“I need more mongness from you,” director Stephen Rayne calls across the hallowed, ancient auditorium of the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
On stage a group of injured soldiers – rehearsing a scene portraying the zombie-like state brought on by their medication – grin back in acknowledgement. To Rayne, more used to dealing with thespians from the Royal Shakespeare Company or National Theatre, the soldiers’ classic slang “mong” is novel.
“I have a new vocabulary of expletives I would have never had before,” he adds.
For the accomplished director, The Two Worlds of Charlie F – a play written about the experiences of wounded soldiers and acted by them - has been a unique and emotional experience. He started with group of 20 nervous, reticent and severely wounded soldiers – many amputees - and had just a few weeks to direct them to a standard worthy of a West End play. And today they will stand up and perform to a packed house.
“To begin with they were fairly reticent. They are soldiers and they don’t want to make fools of themselves,” explains the director. “They are now in a position to stand up in front of an audience and say look at me. This is who I am and you have got to accept it. I am not going away and there are going to be more like me.”
His description is matter of fact until asked what it has been liked to watch these young men and women, all dealing with severe pain, develop on stage. Eyes watering he fights to compose himself, before forcing out the words: “It has been extraordinary.”
“The fastest growing regiment in the army are the injured. Whatever you think of the war in Afghanistan, these guys are 20, 21 and have come back with life changing injuries. They are amongst us and we better get used to the fact they are a tangible part of our society.”
Rayne’s journey of discovery began over the summer when Sir Trevor Nunn – with whom he had co-directed several plays - asked whether he would get involved in the project.
The result is a brutally honest portrayal, which touches on subjects as sensitive as civilian casualties in Afghanistan or lack of sexual interest after a severe injury. On stage soldiers in wheelchairs discuss the stumps of amputated legs or the break down of their marriages. The play veers almost drunkenly from subjects of abject horror to wonderful light hearted moments and banter.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F – a nod to the military term Charlie Foxtrot (or clusterfuck) for everything going horribly wrong – will have two West End performances today before the company hopes to take it to the Edinburgh and Hay festivals as well as on tour.
Rayne was drawn in by the prospect of something completely fresh. He literally started with a blank page as he and playwright Owen Sheers interviewed soldiers about their experiences serving in war zones, being injured and then beginning the fight back to recovery. The result was all their stories woven around the central character Charlie Fowler – played by a charismatic 30-year-old Royal Marine Lance Corporal Cassidy Little, who lost his right leg after being blown up by a roadside bomb serving with 42 Commando last year.
“I told them create a character similar to you but not you, which allowed them to talk personally about their experiences but in the third person,” explains Rayne. The title refers to the two worlds of “going into the army one person and coming out somebody else”. “When you have been on active service, been shot at, killed people and seen people being killed around you, you cannot see the world in the same way, psychologically and literally.”
Intriguingly Rayne decided to weave music and dance into the story. Subjects such as combat stress, nightmares and insomnia are dealt with in song. A heart rending monologue by Little describing how he is “broken” and suddenly a member of the “freak show, circus” of the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, turns into a physiotherapy dance routine before a sudden explosion thrusts the audience into the horror of Afghanistan and a scene of civilian casualties.
Created in partnership with the Haymarket theatre’s Masterclass Trust, the Royal British Legion and the Defence Recovery Capability, The Bravo 22 Company project was developed to empower those dealing with the recovery process and facing life outside the military. As well as acting, servicemen and women have been helping with back stage roles.
Used to working with professional actors, the director admits that the project was challenging initially, dealing with young servicemen and women who were on so much medication that they could pass out on stage or coped at times with psychological trauma through drink.
“A lot of them have cut back on their medication (to stay focused) so they might have to leave the rehearsal to smash a wall because they are in so much pain,” says Rayne.
But equally he adds it has been refreshing experience: “With these guys there is no bullshit. I told them I want to hear your voice, to hear the real truth and that is so rare, to hear an honest record of an experience that is not going through the filter of an actor.
“People have not heard from the ordinary soldiers. So very, very rarely with a play do you do something when you think this is vital, this is necessary.”