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Once more unto the breach

Jaclyn McLoughlin and the Combat Veteran Players

Army veterans of recent military campaigns are finding that Shakespeare can help them rebuild their confidence and offer them relief from the psychological scars of warfare

In a light and airy assembly hall, eight men rehearse the opening scenes of Henry V. Some of them are off the book and some clutch their scripts like security blankets, unwilling to risk forgetting their lines. In order to squeeze the maximum import from the words, the young female director asks the man playing Henry to put down his script and paraphrase the line: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” in his own words.

It is the crucial moment when Henry decides to invade France. Many lives will be lost if he goes to war.  One of the other actors suggests a parallel: “It’s like Maggie Thatcher deciding whether to attack the Belgrano.”

The others murmur assent. The Henry actor delivers the line again with all the appropriate weight of responsibility. Nobody in the room is in any doubt about the ramifications of the speech. And they should know.

These men are not professional actors. They are all ex-servicemen suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. They have experienced conflict, war, bloodshed and terror at first hand and have suffered deeply as a result. And this group, the combat veteran players, is one of the most remarkable initiatives in drama therapy I have come across.

“It began with my PhD project,” says director Jaclyn McLoughlin. “It didn’t really go anywhere. It came out of the guys themselves. It was supposed to be a one-off performance. But they wanted to push the standard up. They wanted to be off the book. It taught me that I had underestimated them, as many people do.”

McLoughlin’s studies took her from Colorado to London and Oxford where she spent a year in postgraduate studies where she formed the idea for applying drama techniques required for Shakespeare to veterans of combat suffering from psychological stress. Her initial aim, she says, was to enter commercial theatre as a director. But such was the impact of the work she did with the CVP that she has devoted herself to the company.

The progress she has made with her band of brothers has been slow and sometimes painful. There is no quick fix for PTSD, but the results are encouraging.

“Personally, it has been a saviour for me,” says Ian Ford, former acting sergeant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. His problems arose from his tours of duty in Bosnia in 1995. Ever since he left the army in 2006 he has “found it hard to share my emotions. I have pushed everyone away. I now have no family and no friends. But put me on the stage as a frightened 12-year-old boy and I can find the emotion. It’s quite liberating. Some people have noticed a big change in my anger and my attitude. I’ve got my self-respect back.”

The rehearsals take place at the Stoll complex in Fulham. Formerly the Oswald Stoll Foundation, it exists to house and care for veterans of HM Armed Forces. People there are very supportive of the group, most of whom live at Stoll themselves under sheltered conditions.

McLoughlin’s original plan was a one-off attempt to use drama in general and Shakespeare in particular as a tool for helping former soldiers reassert themselves through the healing process of drama. So successful was the experiment that several of the volunteers asked her to keep the company going. Two years down the line, the CVP has one production of Midsummer Night’s Dream behind them, Henry V in the current repertoire and Hamlet in the imminent future. It’s a tall order for some severely damaged men, most of whom had never read Shakespeare in their lives.

“I knew nothing about Shakespeare,” says David Wilkins, a Private in the Cheshire Regiment who served in Belfast during The Troubles. “Now I love it. The language is amazing.”

True enough. But poncing about as fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream is one thing, playing soldiers in battle in Henry V is quite another. Isn’t that rather close to home?

“Yes,” he agrees, “but only if you allow yourself to…” he hesitates. “There are areas we can’t or don’t want to go in to but we can use some of it in the performance.”

Ian Ford agrees that Henry V is a dangerous choice, if only because Shakespeare got it so right. The early rehearsals were fraught as they dredged their memories of combat.

“Soldiers are soldiers,” he says. “The rank structure, the drunken soldiers, it’s all the same. I’d seen it in Bosnia. The captain in tears, scared. I’m proud to be English. There is nothing different about us now to the guys in Henry V. Shakespeare shows that soldiers aren’t just killing machines; they have emotions which is why we are all so fucked up. I want us to show the audience that soldiers aren’t all bad. I hope we can give that to the audience.”

Quite apart from the confidence that has been restored to the individuals as a result, there is a collective feeling about being in an acting troupe that is not dissimilar to that of being in the military. The camaraderie, the desire to do the best possible job and the mutual support are common to both.

“If we were just to meet it would be like meeting with neighbours and friends but nothing else,” says Androcles Scicluna. “In this case there is a common factor – acting.” A signalman in the Royal Signals for four years, he has suffered from depression (“in hibernation”) for 20 years. Maltese by birth he is one of the few members of the group with previous stage experience – as an opera singer.

“Because we have all suffered problems in the past it has helped to be another character to get rid of anxiety and depression and anger. At first I was scared of meeting other people with similar problems. Then after a while you feel that the audience and the actors are one family. The subject has given us a common element to discuss between each other.”

The camaraderie is there but it remains fragile. In the couple of days I spent watching rehearsals there were some difficulties with absenteeism, a tantrum or two and at least one member who admitted he had spent the previous evening self-medicating with alcohol instead of learning lines. Sometimes, McLoughlin has her work cut out just keeping the group together, let alone getting them to performance standard.

[pullquote]The rank structure, the drunken soldiers, it’s all the same. I’d seen it all in Bosnia. The captain in tears, scared. I’m proud to be English. There is nothing different about us now to the guys in Henry V[/pullquote]

Yet, somehow, they all pull through. It is quite evident that, difficult as it is for some of them, they all want to be there, to be part of the process. And many are surprisingly candid attitude about their condition.

“We all have our ups and downs,” says David Wilkins, the group’s musician who has composed for the productions. “I turned into a real knobhead at one time. I can get very agitated – I’m on medication for that. But I don’t want to let the other guys or Jackie down. We are all so different but we all have this common interest. We worked through our petty animosities and have gone to come out the other side.”

McLoughlin works them hard, and doesn’t let them off the hook easily. One of the most rewarding and profitable experiences was being invited to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages initiative. Over a period of a few days, the group were mentored and taught by RSC professionals in many aspects of Shakespeare.

“The RSC staff did not treat them as veterans who were trying to act,” wrote McLoughlin in her CVP blog. “The RSC treated them as actors who happen to be veterans. And it made all of the difference in the world both on a performance level and on a personal one for each of the participants.”

The CVP perform in Stratford-upon-Avon. Picture by Guy Thornton
The CVP perform in Stratford-upon-Avon. Picture by Guy Thornton

Intrigued by the selection of plays, I ask her if the progression from the gossamer comedy of Midsummer Night’s Dream through the hardcore history of Henry V to the psychological minefield of Hamlet was deliberate. “The choice of plays was deliberate, yes,” she agrees. “We began with Midsummer Nights Dream to soften them up. It was a kind of triple whammy: Shakespeare, theatre and fairies. The play breaks down all the walls. I thought if they could get past these three things they could do anything.” They made their debut in March 2012 in The Old Vic Tunnels with A Midsummer Night’s Dream to an audience of family and friends. They followed up with Henry V in January this year to great acclaim. The recent closure of The Tunnels due to a shift in funding priorities by The Old Vic might have proved catastrophic, were it not for the fact that the group had by then left its mark. “Losing the Old Vic Tunnels was a huge disappointment,” says McLoughlin. “I can’t speak highly enough of the venue or the team there. But with all of the workshops and performances that we have planned around the UK over the summer and with the next several months being needed to prepare Hamlet before we debut we’ve been incredibly busy and haven’t been immediately in need of a new home.”

Before she returns to her group to continue rehearsal, I ask her a question that has been nagging me since I first walked into the room. How does a young, attractive woman manage to handle a bunch of damaged combat veterans with a variety of issues including anger, aggression and institutionalised machismo?

“Yes, I am a woman, I am young and I’m an American. That’s three strikes against me” she laughs. “Funnily enough, I think that’s why I have their respect. But I had to earn it. Once it was  established it carries more weight. I am not competition, I am not a threat to them.” She pauses, musing on her position. “I am probably the best protected woman in the UK.”

Find out more about the Combat Veteran Players’ performances

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