Review: Soldier Still


Simon Fallaha

Soldier Still, created, directed and choreographed by Dublin-based twins, Jessica and Megan Kennedy, and performed by their Junk Ensemble at Belfast's MAC, is an uncompromising and indelible work about the experiences and consequences of war.

A production emerging from interviews with dozens of soldiers and civilians in worldwide conflict, the depth of research is clear and the movement on stage is meticulous, superbly assisted by sparks of narration, music and silence around fascinating visuals.

The partly amber, partly red smoke that sprouts up from the back of the stage is a sign of impending danger, recruited officers on the verge of grave peril. It scatters itself over the audience, like a fog of war, beginning a "journey to the heart of darkness that is conflict, trauma, truth and identity."

The military are portrayed to replicate every function in human society and harness them for destructive force, suggesting that, in war, instinct overrides the inhibition not to harm. It is then when performers Geir Hytten, Lucia Kickham, Julie Koenig and Fernando Balsera Pita shirk their heads and tilt their bodies around in a state of consistent flux, out of control within themselves but controlled by every external force programmed into them by what can only be military training.

In what will be a recurring identity theme, one girl walks away from the group but only briefly – having broken from her routine, she is not geared for anything else. This is the grim reality for these terrified thinkers turned servile simpletons, trapped in a trance fit for nodding dogs and prancing leopards.

When called to "come back" by their officer (retired Irish army captain Dr Tom Clonan, whose recollections partly serve as the basis for the work), the intensity of the music silences and they return to him. But while they do so physically, they cannot personally – they are too embedded in the ways of conflict. 

Digging deeper, one female "soldier" has a fit while reciting the pain of losing the comfort of home, trading control she never had for control she now has no choice but to accept. Punishing herself by moving around the stage in the guise of a repetitive, physical fitness regime on an invisible "obstacle course", she will not be the "weakest link" but will end up among the "walking dead". 

She can neither be who she used to be nor re-adapt to human contact, and it's quite devastating. It is sad but not surprising that she holds his finger to her head in what can only be a suicidal gesture.

Powerful though this is, it is but an interlude to the exceptionally well-staged, harrowing realities of the war zone itself. 

Two movements stand out: one female literally strips on stage as a way of "shedding her skin", a probable attempt to banish all bad memories. And one male, covered in tape and thus blocked off from the pain of it all, is in a state of numb apathy once the safety barrier is removed, left to channel the emotions he can no longer outwardly feel into the graceful movements of the lady beside him. 

She is bursting with life, but he is virtually dead, the product of the post traumatic stress disorder that we are told can naturally result from war. The ultimate outcome for the characters created in Soldier Still is depersonalisation: something soulless, pointless, even…still. It is both horrifying and dazzling in its terrible beauty.