Back at the Actor’s Centre at the Tristan Bates Theatre I am invited to the opening night of Syndrome, a new play by Tina Jay and directing debut of Jack Brett Anderson. Admittedly I know little about the Gulf War of the early 1990s and always thought of all soldiers’ trauma as terribly tragic, unjust and devastating but before reading tonight’s program I had not heard of the Gulf War Syndrome of which over 60% of returning soldiers suffered: With the almost expected psychological damage, unexplained physical suffering came, affecting sleep and stomach, bowels and joints, making a normal life after the war impossible for those affected and also their family and friends. Apparently, studies of these long-term symptoms began but the Ministry Of Defense never funded a second phase without any explanation.
Syndrome tells the story of four soldiers, starting in an army camp in Saudi Arabia where they wait for weeks to join a maneuver. Boredom and fear are temporarily pushed away by card games, drawings and endless vulgar banter in a testosterone-heavy environment surrounded by heat, sand, yellow desert mist and the occasional smell of burned oil. Or burned bodies. But the distractions grant only short-lived releases of the tensions in the group – that close to death no one wants to appear weak or sentimental. Love is a dirty word here and being gay at this point of recent history in the army illegal. The dialogues are speedy and smooth and through all the swearing and cursing shine well-portioned gems, making each character believable and in a way relatable and loveable. Finally accepting that being scared is part of their job, have they been trained to just see targets everywhere and are they here to kill or to protect people?
Beach club music separates the scenes but then I, somewhere in the darkness of the audience, have a machine gun aimed at me and catch myself moving on my seat as far as I can – I feel very uncomfortable and alone.
When returning to the seats it is impressive to observe how much the stage’s interior has changed during the interval – this an incredible transformation from one act to another. Five years after their return the three surviving veterans live in different parts of London. Seeing each other means depressing reunions led by anger and frustrations and are not the safety nets they all yearn for and cannot find in those not having been “out there”. The empty frames of one living room illustrate this well. “Losing never stops”, their owner says, and indeed all efforts fail: Returning to education and relationships, marriages and family life is not an easy option, however hard each one tries. The ability to give empathy is lost to those who do not receive any from society and they seem a burden to everyone with no output for their pains. A helpless feeling of no direction stays. Alcohol and call boys buy the occasional illusion of happiness for some, but this is all they expect to receive nowadays: The war stays with them forever. Newspapers report observations of physical post-war symptoms affecting more and more soldiers and theories and conspiracies appear, but they cannot prevent the suicide of one who has only emptiness around and within him. And so Syndrome is a bitter survival story for some while everyone is denied a happy end or at least a new start.
We meet the writer, the director, the interior designer and the actors back on stage for a Q&A, welcomed by standing ovations, and the team’s chemistry and authenticity sparks through the whole space – tonight has been intense. I wonder if some higher power has counted the tears in the audience.
Written by Tina Jay, directed by Jack Brett Anderson
***** out of 5 stars
Syndrome played in February (tickets from £12) at Tristan Bates Theatre which is now located at the Seven Dials Playhouse.