There can be few shows more topical on in London at the moment than Motherland. One of the big success stories of the Edinburgh Fringe last year, this is a play that captures the rich stories of women with family members serving in the forces. Against the current review of troop numbers in Afghanistan and daily reports of deaths from there and Iraq these verbatim accounts have a particular resonance.
Topicality is not the only reason why this is a play that should be seen. The women’s stories, collected two years ago from the north east of England by writer and director Steve Gilroy, have been woven into a rich tapestry of voices, memories, emotions and observations, which has a universal resonance.
Sitting amongst a spare set of scattered munitions boxes, the oustanding ensemble of four actors - Rachel Adamson, Charlie Binns, Eleanor Clarke and Helen Embleton present the lives of 16 different women. There are snapshots from childhood: one boy dressed up in his mother’s shoes, another as an astronaut. Favourite toys are recalled: a blue teddy, a cat with two legs. Mothers recall trips to the seaside, Christmases past. Two friends laugh over how they met their husbands on a prank-filled holiday in Crete.
But, of course, not all is rose-coloured. Some women resent their loved ones fighting a war with no purpose. One reflects on the double life her husband leads, another, looking at a photo of hers on a rocket launcher, wonders “what actual damage that rocket did”. Many muse over why the son or partner went into the services at all: “That’s all he ever wanted to do”, recalls a sister. That is the conclusion of most – a single-minded purpose.
Although none of the young men or women seem to have just drifted into this career, many, the mothers in particular, blame themselves for their loved one's decision. Pat remembers how her son talked of joining the Met but, fearing that was too dangerous a profession, she suggested the Royal Military Police. Her son was killed in an ambush by an armed mob in Iraq in 2003. Janice, remembering how her 11-year-old was picked out by Liverpool and Manchester United, believes her warning that football was a short-lived career influenced his decision to sign up. Her son was killed aged 18, after only 18 months service, the youngest British soldier to die in Iraq at that time.
Inevitably, for all the humour and happy memories that this evening presents it is the pain of loss that stays with the audience. Hearts will go out to the mother who learns by phone of her son’s death and another whose son was blown apart by a bomb, but fobbed off with continued misinformation from those in charge. Against such loss, how do women keep going?
The answer to this question is what lies at the play’s core - an extraordinary strength which enables these women to continue their lives in the face of long absence and constant worry while always fearing the worst: the knock on the door with the news that no one wants to hear.
- Louise Gooding