Women at War is a compelling production, worth seeing for the personal story it tells about life as a female soldier.
Constructed from interviews with female soldiers deployed during 2012-13, the show creates a fictional protagonist (Rebecca Johannsen) who signs up to the ‘Female Engagement Team’, a unit tasked with befriending Afghan women in order to gather intelligence. Soon, however, conditions deteriorate. The unit is under-equipped, their training is poor, and the leadership prove incompetent. The protagonist recounts the bullying and sexism she experiences from her colleagues, as well as the violence and poverty she witnesses.
Johannsen, who also directs the show, provides a good performance – her acting is intense, but the emotion is compelling and the audiences feels for suffering. Moreover, she makes excellent use of the traverse stage, engaging with the audience on both sides. Through her anguished monologue, Johannsen explores a range of intriguing themes, such as the responsibility she feels to prove herself on behalf of all women. In one striking section she explores the burden of having to suppress her basic human empathy for a dead child, because she knows that expressing compassion would be perceived as gendered and used as ‘evidence’ of female weakness.
Despite all this potential, the show faced problems. During scene changes the stage is flooded in lurid purple light as Johannsen performs a movement piece. The decision to break up the monologue is a good one, however, the moment feels a little incongruous with the rest of the performance.The script also has issues. Every minute or so Johannsen convulses and mutters a stream of buzzwords which relate to what she has just said. It’s meant to be evocative of PTSD, but the device feels clumsy and it interrupts the flow of her acting. At times it feel like the production is biting off more than it can possibly chew as a host of interesting topics are introduced only to be rapidly dropped. Afghanistan’s structural misogyny, the privileged lifestyle of westerners, and the failure of the military to support traumatised veterans are all important subjects, which the play brushes over too quickly to do them justice.
Despite these limitations, Women at War is a compelling production, worth seeing for the personal story it tells about life as a female soldier.