The Lonely Soldier Monologues
Addressing an event in such recent history, you would be forgiven for thinking you knew everything about the Iraq war. After numerous Hollywood blockbusters, public executions and a worldwide critique of the parts America and the UK played in the arguably unnecessary and absolutely mishandled invasion of Iraq, we understand the politics of the war so much more clearly in hindsight.
It is interesting to discover a side of the story that has been largely overlooked, something that all too often happens when the subject matter is women. The Lonely Soldier Monologues is an entirely verbatim play written by Helen Benedict, recounting stories told to her by female American soldiers deployed to Iraq. Superbly directed by Prav MJ, seven women deliver fiercely striking and honest performances that would make their real-life counterparts proud.
The set design is fittingly minimal. Lighting is used to occasionally divide the space, or to bathe the performers in blood soaked red. With stories as powerful as these, frills and bells would have been unnecessary. The eight stories interweave, so that there is always one performer addressing the audience, but MJ handles the balance well, lifting our moods occasionally to then punch us in the gut with yet another story of rape, sexual harassment or violence. Each story moves chronologically, beginning before they are deployed and rounding off with their experience of coming home. The group acts as a chorus; each woman explains their experience of how, as a woman in the armed forces, you are innately lonely. The idea of a “sisterhood” in that environment is laughable; every experience highlights how every woman has to fight their battle alone.
Each performer stands out, holding their own with a skill and dedication that is brilliantly handled in the direction. There is a huge diversity in the women represented, in terms of ranking, age or background. Most interesting for me were the stories of the older women, and particularly that of the mothers. One woman begins by boasting that she has in the army for over ten years and both her sons have joined too, encouraged by her. But by the end of the play, it is a completely different story. Although back then she thought joining was the honourable thing to do, as she struggles with PTSD, she admits that now she is not so sure.
Speaking with the director beforehand, she compared the women’s experiences to those of male war veterans. Coming home is different for men, she argued, because what they miss most is the camaraderie. For women the story is entirely different. The systematic abuse and rape of female soldiers by men on their own side is rarely addressed in public, and met with enormous uproar if it is. And yet, it is still shocking to hear of a woman who, after years of loyal service, left her gun 20 feet away from her to have a cigarette and was instantly grabbed and raped. Even harder to hear is that upon immediately going to report the incident, she was not only brutally rebuffed but told if she did press forward that she would be held accountable for leaving her weapon unattended, which could lead to losing her job. The way that men feel after coming home, and their experiences of Iraq, have been so entirely different to those of women. The one thing that connected each of them, no matter their age, race or ranking, was that they were constantly verbally sexually abused. The complete lack of respect for female soldiers is clear in how unreported their stories have been so far.
The piece does these unreported stories absolute justice, and the women handle the weighty subject matter with beautiful sensitivity. As harrowing as their experiences were, the performances allow the work to be enjoyable and entertaining as well as provoking thought. With political theatre, it’s often difficult to give an honest opinion about something as divisive as war without ranting to your audience. Prav MJ’s The Lonely Soldier Monologues avoids this by staying honest to the words, and not attempting to shock the audience with fake blood or loud bangs. I very much hope to return and experience it again.
It is interesting to see that most of the women admit to not understanding why they were in Iraq, or why the situation was handled so badly. Maybe this is because the women who would choose to have a play written about them are all bound to have a negative idea of the invasion. But more interesting is that each woman came home and felt used, abandoned and alone. And when their experiences of the war were so lacking in merit, there is no need for them to defend their army. Being a lonely outsider has given them one advantage over their male counterparts – a clearer sight, and a more honest understanding of what they, and other women, laid down their lives for.