Wednesday, April 6, 2016

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 5th April 2016

"I'm a trained killer", she cheekily explains. For once it's true. The vast majority of theatre I see is conceived, produced and performed by art school bohos whose life problems probably only extend as far as a flat white and a smoothly running Macbook Air. So, I always welcome fresh perspectives on stage.

Rebecca Crookshank offers this in spades. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a dramatic recounting of her time in the Royal Air Force, following her entry as a teenager, through training and a later assignment to the Falkland Islands, where she suffered bullying and extreme sexual harassment. Now she's a writer and actor, the show coming pre-garlanded with accolades and about to set out on a national tour.

It's a personably told, detail orientated evening and Crookshank quickly proves herself a talented, charismatic storyteller. She's also a damn fine theatrical mixologist: a dab of pathos; a shot of the scatological; a sprinkling of goofy theatricality; all combined to create a show whose tone is difficult to pin down. It's too serious to be comedy and too silly to be drama, landing in a pleasantly fuzzy theatrical hinterland that keeps the audience off balance.

Performatively I can't fault it. But I do have a bit of a hurdle to clear: I think people who voluntarily join the military are scum

What kind of depraved human being would parcel up their soul to organisations that, at least these days, appear to exist primarily to incinerate civilians in distant lands? For all the patriotic pageantry, pretensions of honour and self-improvement 'be the best' bullshit, choosing a military career is ethically on par with choosing to be a contract killer. The only real difference in the military is that the person telling you who you're going to be murdering today has a silly hat and a bunch of glittery metal pinned to their chest.

It's not the most popular opinion to hold. It's no doubt riddled with hypocrisies and there's probably a thousand emotive, vaguely threatening arguments revolving around hazy ideas of me sleeping well in my bed at night or the sporadic instances where the military death-machine is repurposed for humanitarian causes. But my anti-militarism is the bedrock of my ethics - I am opposed to killing and the military is a tool for killing. 

But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sidesteps these issues in a couple of ways. Crookshank was not a combat soldier; working as an RAF technician and radar operator. In her role monitoring the 'UK Air Defence Region' she can reasonably claim to be guarding lives rather than taking them. In the Falklands things get a little fuzzier; defending a distant imperial appendix. Either way she's not exactly dropping cluster bombs on hospitals: she's a cog in the death-machine rather than its bloodstained claws.

More notably, Crookshank is deeply critical of the misogyny inherent to military organisations. Women have as much right as men to throw their lives away in pursuit of perverse nationalist glory, but for the vast majority of human history, a military life has been intrinsically tied up idealised masculinity. So, perhaps it's not surprising to hear Crookshank explain that a young woman's life in the RAF is, at best, a barrage of tiny patronising jabs (for example, being repeatedly instructed to do women's push-ups) and, at worst, gross sexual assault.

Your average shit and wank obsessed squaddie does not come out of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot smelling of roses. Crookshank emotively paints them as childish dickheads on a perpetual lad's night out. In doing so, she raises a rare compelling argument for the military - maybe confining these apes to an isolated wind-blasted mountain top in the middle of the Atlantic is best for all of us.

As the show progresses, Crookshank's romantic idea of military service steadily crumbles. The edifice shatters altogether when, following a sexually sadistic assault, the best the RAF can do is offer her a thrilling flight in a Tornado fighter plane as compensation. She realises that the organisation triumphs at the expense of the individual, no matter how shittily they've been treated. This should be a sobering thought for anyone tempted to sign up - Crookshank's story just another stitch in a tapestry that includes everything from the much-publicised cover-ups at Deep Cut, to the less reported suicide of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement and, more broadly, the way in which the military tosses aside those maimed in its service.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot eventually underlines that, though the military publicly deifies the individual soldier, privately it really couldn't give a toss. Instead, they're devoted to the continuation of their own existence - desperate to puff up the existential-threat-of-the-week in order to keep the vastly profitable global murder industry rumbling onward.

What the show can't quite get over is its respect for the ideal of service. It understands it's a facade for brutality, but still fetishises the objects and discipline of warfare. When Crookshank lovingly fondles an SA-80 and explains its killing efficiency, thrills to the sonic boom of a fighter plane or happily recalls some camaraderie between soldiers we see the same teenager seduced by recruitment lies. 

Crookshank ultimately sees the military as an organisation in need of reform rather than dissolution, and that's where we differ. For my money, the only way to solve the problems Whiskey Tango Foxtrot raises is for society to eliminate the soldier inside itself.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is touring the country now. Tickets here.

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