Sea and Land and Sky historically unconvincing despite wartime diary source (2 stars)

Sea and Land and Sky historically unconvincing despite wartime diary source

Pretty speeches have little narrative momentum

‘The only thing that scares us is a dying child,’ says Carmen Pieraccini as Lily, a Scottish nurse facing a burning village on the World War II frontline. It is an image of wartime heroism we are not used to seeing. In Abigail Docherty’s play, winner of the Tron’s Open Stage competition, the male soldiers are bystanders in a battle being fought with bandages, blood and bravado by the women. However ghastly it gets – and in Docherty’s vision, it gets very ghastly – the nurses are there to pick over the corpses, deal with severed limbs and clear up the gory mess.

There are consequences, however. The women do not take the same physical toll as the men, but mentally, they are broken by the experience. There are times when Sea and Land and Sky takes on a heightened hallucinatory air as the nurses’ nightmarish experience infects the whole play. One digs in the earth in search of a lost lover, another offers her body to a soldier just to feel alive, another still loses herself in delirium. Rather than waiting for post-traumatic stress to set in, they experience the full psychotic disruption of war right there on the battlefield.

Contradicting the Florence Nightingale image of the stoic nurse, the play is historically unconvincing, despite being based on real wartime diaries. It is hard to buy into the idea of a frontline populated entirely by mentally unstable nurses, still less into the thought of an early-20th century woman using language along the lines of ‘stinking fucking cunting fuckers’. Even so, there is a metaphorical truth in Docherty’s vision of the emotional impact of war. This is not a story of machismo, nor even of war-poet pathos, but of deep psychological disturbance.

Structurally, however, the play reaches this point somewhere in the middle of the first act and has little distance to go thereafter. One bombardment is much like another, just as one traumatised nurse is much like another. Docherty’s writing has a keen sense of poetry, but it is more contemplative than dramatic, giving us individually pretty speeches that have little narrative momentum.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 23 Oct

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