There is no escaping the hard realities of war. The experience; the imagery, it all lodges itself in memory and taints any interaction with the rest of the world. At least it seems to for Kat (Larner Wallace-Taylor), who can’t even dance around the room to her favourite songs, or draw a protective square around her personal property without Charlotte Peters’ direction plunging her back into her past. The only female soldier in a regiment based in Afghanistan, Kat has no problem in fitting in and being ‘one of the lads’. But By My Strength is more than simply a play about a woman in the army, it focusses on the extent to which one’s career pervades into their life, their personality and their very sense of being. One of the productions in the Women and War Festival, produced by Sarah Berger, By My Strength examines a woman in what has traditionally been the most manly of worlds.
Kat is a Northern ladette and as such fits straight into the testosterone-filled environment of an army base. Laura Stevens’ writes our protagonist as defensive, vulgar and brash. Her thrifty upbringing reveals a dry, acerbic wit that attracts her to the current man in her life when he ‘treats’ her to a Harvester dinner date – “He’ll do.” Was Kat always programmed to be somewhat paranoid? Or has the army instilled this in her, constantly looking over her shoulder, a bravado that plasters over the masked frailty? The play unfolds in the apparent safety of Kat’s bedroom, a space that she can declare as hers and then defend By My Strength. A typically messy 20-something, odds and ends are casually discarded about the floor – a revolver here, a gun magazine there, a sniper rifle on the bed; the equivalent of getting home at the end of the day and dumping your clothes onto whatever piece of furniture you can find. These are Kat’s playthings, her toys, her hobbies.
Wallace-Taylor has lapses in concentration throughout this performance. But despite, forgetting lines and losing characterisation, she still overall successfully conveys who Kat is at her core – down to earth with no frills and making no apologies. The issue of identity, one that drives so many to join one of the armed forces and become something bigger & better, is a major driver yet again in Stevens’ script. But the memories that should hit with impact and intensity fall flat. Describing a routine patrol gone wrong with portable lighting and gunshot is conceptually sound but lacks here in its execution. When put in the ultimate position of power, a decision of whether to take or spare a life, is thrust into Kat’s hands, the combination of fear and exhilaration should create a palpable tension. Yet the result is a caricature, a diluted recollection of such a poignant life-or-death moment.
The Women and War Festival is certainly making its mark on the City of London this month and By My Strength is a competent addition to the series. Overall however, the thrill of the shot and the kickback emotional turmoil isn’t powerful enough to add true gravitas to this particular work.
Director: Charlotte Peters
Producer: Claire Evans
Writer: Laura Stevens
Design: Tom Sayers (Music & Sound); Becky Brown (Lighting)
Cast: Larner Wallace-Taylor
Runs until 31 July 2016 as part of the Women and War Festival