Acting, as we all know, is a precarious profession. Every time an actor walks on stage he is baring himself and leaving himself exposed. In a typical play he has the comfort and support of the rest of the company and a text that, to a certain extent, has been tried and tested. When an actor chooses to perform a one-man show and, what is more, one he has conceived and written himself, there is no safety net. He is on his own. And this ironically, is the situation in which ex-soldiers often find themselves when they leave the military. In his one-man play, Cry Havoc, US army veteran Stephan Wolfert vividly reveals and explores their plight though his own personal experiences.
We learn of his difficult childhood being bullied by his older brother and caught between an alcoholic father and a cruel mother. As a result of a sporting accident at school he is left crippled and deformed. Although dogs did not bark at him as he halted by them, and after two years making a more or less full recovery, the mental scars were beginning to accumulate. Unable to attend the upmarket universities with their beautifully manicured-lawn campuses of which he dreamed, he seeks refuge the army.
Contrary to his sensitive nature (he had fancied being a ballet dancer when a child) the army regime was brutal and unforgiving as he, along with all the other recruits, was hard-wired to become a killing machine. After the death of his best friend on a training exercise and the bitter irony of the funeral in the beautifully manicured-lawns of Arlington cemetery, Wolfert goes AWOL.
As the play opens we find him on train in Montana. Hopping off in a small wayside town, on an impulse he enters a theatre for the first time in his life and is confronted by a production of Richard III. The connection is immediate, not only because of Richard’s familiar physical deformity but the fact that the character was also a disillusioned and angry soldier. The experience led to Wolfert leaving the army, attending drama school and becoming an actor and campaigner for the rights of veterans.
Mr Wolfert clearly has an axe to grind but in his play he hones its edge so fine it becomes a precision instrument able to dissect and lay bare the plight of men, and women, who have served their country in time of war and are afterwards cast aside with no support. In his seventy minute monologue Wolfert seamlessly inserts quotes from Shakespeare to enforce and enhance his own text.
There’s an awful lot of war in Shakespeare and an awful lot of dying. His approach to, and depiction of, war is dirty and honest, painfully so at times. There are no gung-ho heroes, nobody emerges unscathed, rarely even the victors. It’s a messy, bloody business with no real winners. Just like in real life. And that’s why Shakespeare has survived so long and why his work, his words, still ring true – because they are true and we all recognize them as such.
Cry Havoc is a fast moving, ever changing kaleidoscope, bringing laughter one moment, tears the next. In this virtuoso performance Stephan Wolfert carries his audience with him every step of the way, often into dark unfamiliar places where otherwise they would be loath to tread. The quotes from Shakespeare are interwoven with such skill it is sometimes difficult to realise where Wolfert’s words end and the Bard’s begin. The performance, and indeed the writing, is a tour de force, not merely a piece of spectacular physical theatre but also a cri de coeur from a damaged man who has overcome adversity to create not only a great work of art but one of conscience too.
We all have a responsibility and debt of honour to those we send out to defend us and kill on our behalf. But, as this play exposes, our soldiers are not welcomed back into society, perhaps because they, like the hangman living outside the city walls, are considered unclean, the manifestation of our darker, primitive side, an aspect of our human nature which we prefer to hide in those dark, unfamiliar places. Somebody has to our dirty work, but we’d prefer not to know about it, thank-you.
And for the purposes for STET’s mini Shakepeare Festival, Cry Havoc demonstrates that Shakespeare is not limited to time or place, or even just the theatre, but that he speaks universal truths which are accessible and relevant to us all, at all times and in all circumstances. Michael Hasted 20th April 2018