A Brave Face, Vamos Theatre Commpany at Jacksons Lane

Vamos Theatre Company A Brave Face

Vamos Theatre Company A Brave Face - Credit: Archant

The Highgate arts centre hosts a poignant full mask mime performance about soldiers with post traumatic stress

Vamos theatre company tell stories with no words and the actors in full face masks.

If that sounds like playing tennis with one hand tied behind your back, artistic director Rachael Savage disagrees.

“It’s about economy, clarity of thought, and precision of movement - and how we share that with the audience,” she says.

“In many ways its incredibly simple, you need to be a really strong naturalistic actor. They have a script in their heads and it’s incredible how that script ends up in the mind of the audience, who have to work hard to interpret it. But you have more access to their emotions because they are so engaged.”

That is never more true than of A Brave Face which is based on the true stories of veterans suffering post traumatic stress.

Savage is writer and director of the show, which took two years to develop.

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“We make stories that need to be told and translate them into full mask,” she says.

“It’s often a long and painful process, with this we worked hard to gain the trust of ex military who generously and bravely shared their traumatic stories.”

It follows two best mates from Middlesborough who go to Afghanistan in 2009, and their relationships with friends and family - especially Ryan and his sister.

But he witnesses things he can’t talk about, and struggles to cope when he returns home.

Savage says one veteran Ray was “a wealth of knowledge” of how PTS can affect returning soldiers.

“He was a medic who became a paramedic so it messed him up almost more because he went from taking lives to saving lives. He has really driven the story.”

Another inspiration was a Guardian article about Danny Fitzsimons, who after serving in Iraq and Kosovo, went on to kill two colleagues in Iraq while working as a security contractor.

Now facing life imprisonment, he suffered PTS after witnessing the death of both a best friend and a young boy he had befriended.

“Up to 18,000 leave the military each year. Many come back fine, having had the best years of their lives, while others are physically well but emotionally shattered.

“The army offers the most gruelling training to become a solider, yet there is no training in how to become a civilian again.”

Savage wanted to explore how the veteran’s families are the “hidden heroes who pick up the pieces”. “It can have a huge impact on life partners, children or younger siblings.”

Another source was Matthew Green’s book Aftershock, in which he documents the private battles fought by soldiers as they struggle with the legacy of Afghanistan, Iraq and other deployments.

“It’s really shocking and talks about how suicide is on the increase. I think there is a gap between the true figures and the figures being collected. Veterans are often not identified. They often don’t admit to having problems because of guilt and shame or because it’s a sign of weakness, and it stays bottled up.

“In a combat situation they are taught fight not flight, to supress pressure and keep a lid on it. One said PTS was like a box of frogs and when they start jumping he knew he was in trouble.”

She argues for dropping the disorder at the end of PTS “because of the stigma.”

“It’s difficult enough to come forward for help, but there is the chance of meeting an individual who saves your life, builds trust and puts you back on track.”

And while PTS is often the product of more than one traumatic experience, she’s clear that it’s the military who need to take responsibility for sending often vulnerable people to difficult places.

“The army promises escape and adventure but a lot of the traumas taking place in Afghanistan and Iraq have been from a kind of war that in many ways is different to others that we have known.

“They can’t say who the enemy is, they look like civilians, and the way young people are caught up in those conflicts creates trauma.

“Children really play on the conscience of soldiers; one couldn’t bear to be around small children because of the innocent lives she saw taken. Another couldn’t play football with his girlfriend’s son because of a child whose body he found cut to pieces.

“There’s this level of guilt in carrying out other people’s orders so we can all sleep well in our beds at night, yet civilians don’t want to know about what happened.”

Ultimately she hopes to make her audiences feel that pain.

“In full mask performance, when actor and audience meet halfway it can be really powerful theatre, where you can share beautiful dangerous, funny and poignant moments. If you can make an audience feel, you can make them think. That’s what theatre should be.”

Vamos Theatre’s A Brave Face is at Jacksons Lane Theatre on April 1-3 jacksonslane.org.uk