WHAT must it be like to see the world on your doorstep going about its peaceable business, all chatting and laughing, when you have just been robbed of a loved one by a war being fought in all our names?
What must it be like to dread the TV news or a knock on the door, both potential deliverers of terrible tidings?
These questions, and plenty more like them, lie behind an extraordinary play called Motherland which began in Newcastle as a student production and is about to embark on a national theatre tour.
The play – more of a staged drama-documentary – is based on interviews with the relatives and girlfriends of serving soldiers and those who have been bereaved.
It gives voice to those who are all too aware that Britain is a nation at war (formerly in Iraq, now in Afghanistan)
At Live Theatre, director Steve Gilroy recalls the roots of a project which has captured the imagination beyond Tyneside – particularly after a clutch of awards at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the verdict of respected critic Lyn Gardner, who wrote of the “immense power” of “this honest, beautifully-produced little show”.
It began, Steve says, as a project for the postgraduate students of the Northumbria Live Academy, set up by Northumbria University and Live Theatre as a bridge between academic study and professional theatre work.
He had wanted to commission a writer to produce a piece suitable for the four young women left on the course after the sole male student dropped out. “But we didn’t have enough money, so I thought I’d go ahead and write something myself.
“I’d read a news story saying there is a disproportionate number of casualties among servicemen and women from this region in relation to the rest of the country and wondered why that was.
“I started to research the military background of the region.
“ Of course, there’s a garrison at Catterick. But it seems there are a whole lot of social and economic reasons why people from specific parts of the North East end up in the Forces.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a coincidence that so many of those who have lost their lives came from South Shields, for instance.
“I’d also seen a number of stories on the local TV where there’d be a report of a soldier being killed and then there’d be a mother talking about how proud she was, probably managed by the Ministry of Defence PR department.
“I thought there had to be more to this. What is life like for these women who are grieving for their sons and daughters when most people seem to be at best disinterested and at worst quite anti?”
Motherland has taken Steve and his young cast on an extraordinary journey, much of which still lies ahead.
In the dark of Live’s intimate auditorium, Steve gets quite emotional when he recalls the bravery and even the humour of those whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice.
There was the mother who admitted she had tried to scupper her son’s efforts to join the Army.
“He asked her what he should wear for the interview and she said, ‘Just go in your tracksuit’.
“He went into the recruiting office and the sergeant behind the desk asked him how he thought he was going to get a job dressed like that.
“He said his mam told him to wear his tracksuit and the sergeant said, ‘When you’re going to stop listening to your mam, come back’.”
Later, cut up by her son’s distraught, defeated look, she had taken him into town to buy a suit, thereby smoothing his path into the Army and ultimately to Iraq where he would become a casualty of war just 18 months later.
What makes Steve choke even now is the lad’s response to his mam’s fears: “He said, ‘I’m going to have a job, a career, and see the world and really do something for people’.
“It’s not just about him saying, ‘I’m going to make a difference’, which was fantastic, but it’s in his excitement about having a career.
“He was working on some unemployment scheme as a painter and decorator but thought he could do something better.
“The Army does offer that security and decent wage to young lads brought up with very few qualifications.”
Some of the interviews were conducted by the young actresses who, between them, share 16 roles – but each have one major part in the play.
Helen Embleton, from South Shields, plays Pat Long, whose son, Corporal Paul Long, was killed in June 2003. She, too, is from South Shields and, at 25, is just a year older than Paul was when he died.
“We have been on a journey ourselves,” she said.
“I know it’s made us think about the war and what’s going on. I don’t think any of us had thought a great deal about it before.”
Helen was nominated for a Best Actress award for her performance in Edinburgh last year, but it is clear this is an ensemble piece relying on the cast’s collective strengths.
Rachel Adamson, 24, from Hawthorn, County Durham, recalled: “We were all involved in the interviewing process and that was good because it meant we were involved right from the start. Some of the interviews were about two hours long, but the material had to be condensed into about 10 minutes.”
Rachel plays Janice Murray whose son, Private Michael Tench, was killed in 2007 at the age of 18.
Ellie Clarke, 26, from Leicestershire, plays Elsie Manning, who lost her daughter, Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott, while Charlie Binns, also 26, from Leeds, plays a spiritual healer called Elizabeth.
At Live Theatre, where Motherland opened with little fanfare last year, the women depicted in the play came to see it.
Evidently it was a successful but emotional night with tears, laughter – for Steve swears there are plenty of light moments – and applause, and a moment of realisation for other audience members when they realised the bereaved mothers were among them.
Steve says he had no qualms about the young actresses playing women old enough to be their mothers. “I did it with another piece in London once and it worked.”
Although Motherland is inescapably about war, Steve says it is really more about relationships and the complexities of family life.
One woman had talked about the influence on the family of her 90-year-old mother, “this extraordinary Geordie matriarch”. Unfortunately, the Northumbria Live Academy is no more, but in Motherland it has left a fine legacy.
After being lauded to the skies in Edinburgh, its national tour – like that of The Pitmen Painters, which also originated here – begins in Newcastle with two performances at Live Theatre on September 17 and 18.
It then hits the road, visiting Glasgow, Manchester, London and various other destinations – a fine advertisement for the new theatre emerging from the North East and for the talents of four very fine young actresses.
For Live Theatre tickets, call (0191) 232-1232 or www.live.org.uk