Bully Boy – What we do when we send our troops to war. (Theatre Review)
A Night of Play theatre company.
10 – 26 March Blood Moon Theatre, The World Bar.
At one crucial point in Bully Boy, Major Oscar Hadley (Jaymie Knight) sits beside Private Eddie Clark (Patrick Cullen) on a plane reading ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ while the young Private accused of tossing an eight year old Afghani boy down a well plays a combat video game on his phone. It’s a chilling moment in a play that regularly references Freud who famously worked with ‘Shell Shock’ war victims when he was developing his theories that would become the basis for psychoanalysis. Importantly, Freud was one of several mind scientists suggesting that electro shock therapy of shell shock victims was inappropriate as the problems the men were experiencing were psychological, not physical. Freud suggested this retreat into ‘war neurosis’ was a self-preservation technique carried out by the ‘peace time ego’ in order to defend the body against this new ‘war time ego’ that was placing it in danger.
“The conflict takes place between the old ego of peace time and the new war-ego of the soldier, and it becomes acute as soon as the peace-ego is faced with the danger of being killed through the risky undertakings of his newly formed parasitical double. Or one might put it, the old ego protects itself from the danger to life by flight into the traumatic neurosis in defending itself against the new ego which it recognizes as threatening its life.” (Freud and the war Neurosis)
It was dangerously assumed at the time of Freud that men who suffered from this problem were weak and somehow unmanly. This connection between masculinity and war continued through to the second world war when men were screened, only to find of the most masculine and well-adjusted men twenty-five percent of casualties were caused by war trauma and at the front itself, fifty percent. Despite being forced to confess the connection between war trauma and a lack of masculinity was a spurious one, popular culture has never rid itself of the connection between masculinity and war. Films such as ‘American Sniper’ (2015) present post traumatic stress syndrome as a tragic but fleeting aspect of war for the true hero (who always manages to rise above unaided) while ‘The Guest’ (2014) presents post traumatic stress syndrome as a kind of super power that leads to invincibility back home. The sublimated reality of this scenario cannot be avoided – war and its devastating consequences on our soldiers is a horror we perpetuate ourselves by electing leaders who use it to advance their own interests and by pretending it is resolving a conflict it cannot impact. In Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy, an eight year old boy has been tossed down a well to drown and die of his injuries by soldiers sent to that country to protect him. Sandi Toksvig’s point is this tragedy is inevitable in a war zone and we must face up to the fact that no good comes of this ridiculous exercise. Given there are many intelligent thinkers who suggest we are on the verge of WWIII, the time is more urgent than ever to question our motivations in consistently electing officials who pursue the attitude of the warmonger.
Showing great timing, A Night of Play theatre company have chosen to present Bully Boy to Sydney audiences reminding us of the devastating cost of sending our troops to fight for us. Bully Boy is not an easy play to digest, and at its heart is the death of a child deemed collateral damage. The play is beautifully written and even more meticulously researched calling forth the frightening variants on the version of truth we are fed about the masculine man and the way he becomes a hero in war. The damaged at the heart of Bully Boy are all victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and each in their own way is trying to make sense of how their injuries relate to hero status. Jaymie Knights Oscar is a powerful figure of the law until he is unraveled by the bond he unwittingly forms with the young man he is sent to investigate. Knight plays his role with an obvious vulnerability that forces a deep engagement with his character from the audience that results in a crushing empathy when we learn the secrets of his war injuries.
Patrick Cullen is Eddie Clark, the young Private being investigated for the death of the young boy. Cullen’s immersion in his character is so complete we get a sense immediately of the futility of pointing fingers and searching for scapegoats when dealing with war crimes. At the heart of both Cullen and Knight’s performances is the dead child, never present and yet always hovering over the top of the two men and their sad attempts at rebuilding their shattered lives. The umbrella for these two great performances is the watchful eye of director Deborah Mulhall who places some emphasis on the funnier aspects of Bully Boy in an effort to release the play from some of its understandable preachiness. She is as successful in this endeavor as she is creating several worlds for her characters our of minimal props by moving them around the room.
Bully Boy is not for the faint hearted. Its a complex play that demands a deeper level of engagement with its very tumid subject matter. But it is a beautifully written play that is beautifully performed and dares to speak to us on behalf of our troops. The words they might not be permitted to say.
For this reason, Bully Boy comes highly recommended.