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Distant war far too close for comfort

A NUMBER of plays have focused on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Steve Gilroy’s Motherland is the first to pull focus and examine the effects back home on the family and friends of British servicemen.

For some North-East women, the war in Iraq is too close for comfort. Emma Paterson talks to the director of Motherland, which premieres tonight.

A NUMBER of plays have focused on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Steve Gilroy’s Motherland is the first to pull focus and examine the effects back home on the family and friends of British servicemen.

The play at Newcastle’s Live Theatre dramatises conversations carried out with 12 local women whose worlds have been thrown into turmoil.

The interviews were compiled by Gilroy, who moved to the region two years ago to head the Northumbria Live Academy, a postgraduate school for young actors run by Northumbria University and Live Theatre.

Gilroy says the idea behind the play was to fill the blanks left by media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Looking at the local news it really struck me that the region seemed to have suffered a disproportionate amount of deaths and injuries in both conflicts, so I wanted to reflect that.”

Motherland’s director explains how he spent several months recording conversations with the lovers, mothers, wives and friends of just a few of the several thousand soldiers who have served in both wars.

After putting the play together, Gilroy arranged for the actors and their real life characters to meet up. “I wanted the actors to be able to mimic their mannerisms and speech patterns when speaking their lines,” he says.

Among those taking part in the project is Janice Murray, from Sunderland, whose 18-year-old son, Michael Tench, served in the 2nd Battalion, the Light Infantry in southern Iraq.

In the play, Janice’s character recalls with bitter irony how she’d discouraged her son from pursuing a possible career in football.

“I said, it’s a short-lived career, son, it’ll only last 18 months.”

Eighteen months was the exact amount of time Private Tench served in the Army before being hit by a roadside bomb earlier this year. He’s one of the youngest British soldiers to have been killed in Iraq.

The grief of Janice Murray is shared by several other of Motherland’s characters. So, too, is her sense of shock and utter surprise. Several times we are led to question the extent to which the women back home fully understood the nature of modern warfare.

For Steve Gilroy this was, perhaps, the most surprising revelation. “To be honest, I have to admit that there did seem to be a level of naivety. Some of them didn’t appear to have thought about the possibility that their family or friends might kill or be killed. I think some of them thought it would be a clean war, like a video game, and that the casualties would be almost non-existent.”

Not all the women in the play have lost someone, but all have suffered some emotional anguish, not least the pain of never quite knowing when or if their family or friends will be coming home.

Gilroy says many of his conversations with the women were accompanied by the continuous sound of 24-hour news channels babbling frantically in the background and adding to the atmosphere of almost unbearable anxiety.

On stage, the interviews are cut to create dramatic dialogues in which the women share moments of humour and pain, as well as discussing the wider issue of why Britain went to war in the first place.

So is this an anti-war play?

Gilroy insists it wasn’t his intention to create an overtly political piece although he makes no bones about his own opposition to the conflict. He says above all he hopes the play will convey something of the extraordinary bond that exists between mother and child.

“I know it sounds a bit sentimental, but I’ve been amazed by how powerful a figure the mother is up here, and how far she’ll go to protect her child.”

He adds: “What I wanted was to allow these women to tell their story and for the audience to draw its own conclusions.”

Among those sitting in the audience over the next few days will be many of the women themselves.

Gilroy refers to them as “co-creators” and is understandably nervous about how they will respond to a dramatisation of some of the most painful moments of their lives.

Motherland opens at Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Newcastle, tonight and runs until December 8. For tickets, tel. (0191) 232-1232 or visit www.live.org.uk

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