Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: 'The Acedian Pirates' at Theatre503, 28th October 2016

As we process into remembrance season, the deification of soldiers is 'amplified to deafening volume. Why must we humble ourselves at the feet of the man with the gun and call him 'hero? What has he done to make the world a better place? Has he bombed a wedding? Executed an injured man in cold blood? Perhaps tortured a couple of people and renditioned them over to their bonecrackin' US brethren. Maybe they just beat up a couple of teenagers while shouting:
"Oh yes! Oh yes! Now you gonna get it. You little kids. You little motherfucking bitch! You little motherfucking bitch!"
It's difficult to square the current state of the Middle East, in which countries pummelled into submission by our brave boys have subsequently collapsed into chaotic nightmares with the sight of proud soldiers nobly marching down the Mall in the full thrusted-chest military pomp. Their incompetence, slavish groupthink and immorality has fucked up the world, and it's us chumps that have to sift through the wreckage.

Criticism of the military, particularly during remembrance season, is one of modern Britain's great taboos. Should a TV personality refuse (or merely forget) to wear a poppy, the dogs of the right wing press are roused, and proceed to tear the offender to shreds until they issue a grovelling apology. So it's deeply reassuring to see Theatre503 stage Jay Taylor's The Acedian Pirates, a play that demolishes the lie of military heroism.

Set in an indistinct forever war ("possibly the future, possibly the past") The Acedian Pirates follows a group of soldiers of varying ranks holed up in a lighthouse, guarding a woman, Helen, who has powerful symbolic value for both sides. The soldiers cover all the usual military archetypes: the fresh recruit yet to truly experience war, the old hand who's seen it all before, the shouty, pervert officer, the taciturn hardman and their psychopathic superior.

The Acedian Pirates alternative world is quickly and efficiently defined: The uniforms are a patchwork assemblage of WW2, Cold War and contemporary military; the opposing forces are trapped in an Orwellian "we have always been at war" quagmire; and the military culture echoes our own propaganda. There's also obvious echoes of the Iraq War, the soldiers sent over there on the pretext of liberation and freedom, but instead inflicting misery and pain upon people who don't want them there.

The story quickly zeroes in on fresh recruit Jacob (Cavan Clarke). As events proceed the scales fall from his eyes and he comes to understand that war heroism is a lie fed to the gullible to trick them into volunteering their bodies for the meatgrinder. The turning point for him is when he kills for the first time and suffers a mental breakdown. He sits silent, smeared in the blood of others, staring blankly into the distance, as his fellow soldiers toast his heroism. Riddled with guilt, he explains he killed "because they had one colour uniform and I had a different one. That's it." and "What did they do to me? I didn't know those men. We might have been friends. One man I killed, he even looked like me..."

It's a blunt but effective argument against nationalistic militarism. The Acedian Pirates lays bare the invisible lines that divide us from our fellow man. You gain honour and privilege purely by the country of your birth, inextricably pitting you against those who happen to come from some other patch of land. In a dark classical irony, you have much more in common with the soldiers you're fighting against than the generals commanding you.

Taylor also does a fantastic job showing the moral depths men sink to when immersed in war. This is represented by the ghoulish Troy (Rowan Polonski). A diabolical figure, tattooed with the fingernail scratches of his torture victims, Troy gleefully lays it out: "We've been 'helping' people for thousands of years. Yet we're still at war, aren't we? We still murder each other and ravage each other's women and burn each other alive." He concludes that man is instinctively and uncontrollably driven to commit atrocities, so why fight nature?

The sadistic nihilist has a point. Yet it's only in fighting against the debased instincts of patriotism, nationalism, xenophobia and militarism that mankind can truly extricate itself from the nightmare cycle of violence and misery we're locked into. True peace is an impossible dream, but its in aspiring to it that real progress can be made. 

All these arguments bristle within The Acedian Pirates, which doesn't only put forward a good argument, but is well staged, effectively lit and memorably performed. Particularly enjoyable is taciturn big dude Marc Bannerman, whose gravelly utterances provide a bit of comic relief in the mire, as well as Andrew P Stephen, who seems shot through with some unpredictable electricity.

Tackling topics this weighty is an ambitious undertaking for a first time playwright, not to mention whipping up a believable alt-universe and quietly weaving in mythological elements. Jay Taylor and Theatre503 should be celebrated for having the guts to stick their heads up in the middle of poppy season and shout "bollocks!" at the sickening hypocrisy of it all. 

Top stuff and an easy recommendation.


The Acedian Pirates is at Theatre503 until 19 November. Tickets here.

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