For all the thousands of soldiers killed during The Gulf War, it is often those who returned home who are considered to have lost the most. The much publicised, but mostly misunderstood, Gulf War Syndrome is used as an umbrella term for a raft of unexplained psychological and physical effects experienced by those returning from this conflict in particular. Tina Jay’s compelling new play Syndrome, playing at The Tristan Bates Theatre, explores the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm and the long-lasting effects still being felt today.
The first act is set during the war itself, four soldiers living in close confines share the everyday slog of being battle ready. There’s little in terms of action here, but this first act is crucial to introducing us to the men whose lives we will follow. As you would expect the conversation is often about sex, or the women the men have left behind, but there are subtle hints to what is to come. Tablets to be taken every eight hours, fumes from burning oil fields and unnecessary injections all create the sense of an unhealthy environment.
There’s plenty of speculation on what caused these syndromes, but little in the way of facts. Tina Jay’s meticulously researched script does not attempt to answer any questions, or apportion any blame, but it does lay out in unflinching detail the devastating effects. The second act, set some years later, shows us the crippling changes that have come about; how the soldier’s lives, and the lives of their families, have been left in tatters.
Director, Jack Brett Anderson has captured army life particularly well. The movements, facial expressions and tone of voice of our soldiers are pitch perfect, and the comradery between the men is often interrupted by the strict hierarchy of the military. The scenes transition well, with music often allowing us to flow easily in to the next piece of tension. Most importantly however, this play is directed with passion, and that comes through in every second of performance.
The actors themselves are a tight unit, their characters bonds all the more believable for their obvious relationship with each other and affinity with the piece. Robert Wilde excels as the upper-class officer who is probably out of his depth and struggling with his feelings long before he takes any tablets. Romario Simpson and Kerim Hassan bolster the first act with their boisterous antics and crude jokes, only to serve us a gut punch in the second act, as we see the changes in Ray and Deno. Akshay Kumar elegantly handles two very distinct roles, managing to endear us to both equally in a much shorter time frame.
Jonjo McGuire’s set design is exquisite, and an outstanding example of what can be achieved, even in a small space. Camouflage netting drapes the walls, with a small tent the only cover for these soldiers; you can hear the sand crunch under foot and the feeling of a hot, dry desert is easily conjured. The stage is ingeniously transformed for the second act, creating both the gauche bedroom of a sex worker, and the threadbare living room of a fallen hero.
Syndrome is a powerful and potent mix of anger, violence and heartbreak. Tina Jay’s excellent script fizzes with emotion, detonating in all the right places, and combined with magnificent performances makes this a vitally important and utterly unmissable night of theatre.
Syndrome is at The Tristan Bates Theatre until 29th February 2020.