THE centenary of the start of the First World War and the final departure of British troops from Afghanistan have kept war and the grim business of soldiering in the forefront of the news for many months.
The First World War commemorations will continue for four years, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will similarly cast long shadows, not least in the shattering mental, emotional and physical impact on combatants and their families.
Passion: Line of Departure, a touring production by Dorset-based AsOne Theatre, takes these two wars, 100 years apart, and looks at their effect not only on the soldiers but on their families, using letters, diaries, memories, photographs and music.
AsOne’s artistic director Jane McKell, who plays the mothers of two soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, describes the lengthy and intensive research process that went into creating Passion, finding stories that would link the two conflicts and enable them to explore the experiences and the similarities and differences between the two wars.
“We set about exploring the effect on combatants and families during two wars, 100 years apart, and creating a play that would result in our audiences buzzing with thoughts, and maybe even inspired to research their family stories past and present.
“We recorded 14 Wessex stories told by willing combatants,parents, siblings, grandchildren and individuals.”
The result is a play, by Stephanie Dale, that tells five stories of war and love across the century, with four real characters and one fictional (but based on research).
The present day scenes were partly inspired by the story of a family who started a foundation in the name of their son, a platoon leader in Afghanistan, and the experiences of a young soldier (played by Steve Rollins) discharged after a long deployment, diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and left to fend for himself.
The First World War sequences focus particularly on a young soldier from Bridport (played by Ieuan Jeffcott) who volunteered at the age of 19, leaving his wife and young child, taking his camera to record life on the western front.. Diaries from the war and the memories of two brothers (played by Steve Rollins and Tim Laycock) of their grandfather, who served in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) form another strand.
The music for the play – which is performed without an interval – includes First World War songs and original compositions by musical director Tim Laycock, a well-known Dorset local historian, composer and actor.
The set incorporates the desert and the trenches, and present-day domestic interiors. The lighting and sound effects are particularly effective in evoking the terror and confusion of both desert and trench warfare, complete with flashing explosions which fill the theatre with dust and smoke.
This is not a play that glorifies war in any way – it depicts courage, at the front and at home, and pride in the bravery of soldiers and the resilience of their families, but it is also powered by anger at the futility of war and at the way discharged soldiers are abandoned.
The themes resonated strongly on a day when the BBC reported criticism of the government for failing to abide by its pledge (the “military covenant”) to give injured British soldiers priority for medical treatment in the years after their service. The report quoted leading professors in psychology and orthopaedics who say the healthcare system is not providing veterans with the service they have been promised.
Passion: Line of Departure is touring the region until late November and will be on tour again next spring, with a final performance planned to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice in 2018.