Depending on how members of the audience wish to view it, Valiant starts off either clichéd or simply with the sort of storyline most people in the West have heard before. Perhaps both. It does not, however, break its audiences in gently. But the stories a cast of four (Lanna Joffrey, Diana Bermudez, Catherine Fowles, and Gemma Clough) tell become increasingly harrowing, and if they seem very real and very personal, it is only because they are stories derived from very real and very personal accounts told to Sally Hayton-Keeva. The show’s programme is not particularly forthcoming about Hayton-Keeva, except to say the company is dedicated “to keeping Sally’s legacy alive”. A quick online search reveals she died young, at the age of 55, from a rare form of cancer.
What we do know is that she managed to interview a lot of people, from all over the world, and it is thanks to her vision to make the stories of women caught up in war be read that this stage adaptation ever saw the light of day. Probably around a third (I did not keep an exact tally) of the 38 stories in the original book are retold, in a series of soliloquies. It is not nearly as dull as I am making it sound: they are passionate tales, and are intriguing to listen to, if not downright difficult. This is not a play for the fainthearted.
While it is impossible to know how many of the specific points in these stories are embellished or simply mistaken, either through memory lapses, honest mistakes, or the self-confessed post-traumatic stress that some of the women are still going through (or for some other reason), the stories are nonetheless credible. They are extremely vivid, leaving little – sometimes nothing at all – to the imagination, in their almost Tolkien-esque descriptions of evil and terror. The use of a chorus in the form of projected text that appeared on a screen served the double purpose of filling in scene changes and giving just the right amount of background information. I thought it was extremely well done, and kept the show flowing. Taken together, the whole thing felt a lot less than its 75 minutes: it is always better for a play to leave an audience wanting more, as opposed to outstaying its welcome.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of a Japanese story, in which a woman felt that the nuclear bomb was some sort of gift from God. I am trying to convince myself that I misheard, and that she felt her resulting facial disfigurement from what happened in 1945 was used by the God she believes in to help her realise that true beauty is on the inside. But it is in the rawness of these stories, told ‘as is’ and without analysis or judgement, that makes them so fascinating.
There is nothing in the way of set or props, aside from the aforementioned projections, plus chairs at both ends of the stage to be used when an actor is not speaking (nobody is ever off-stage). The acting and the text must therefore do all the work. Despite the grim and disagreeable circumstances of their stories, the rapport established with the audience is astounding. There are rhetorical questions. There is eye contact. And there is more than enough detail to understand precisely their points of view – even if we disagree with them – without too much detail to make the stories sound overdone or pedantic. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, especially with emotions running so high, but this production is a success in every way.
The emphasis is not on the politics or what it is to be in military uniform, and it’s a perspective I must admit I have not paid much attention to before, aside from cursory acknowledgements that in World War Two, women dug (that is, grew what crops they could in their gardens) ‘for Britain’ and formed the majority of the workforce that built London’s Waterloo Bridge.
This is a very different take on bringing war stories to the stage, and I find this play quite incomparable. So moving, so brutal, and so deeply inspiring. The words ‘must see’ are somewhat overused these days, so I will attempt to put it another way: even if you’re the sort of person who would rather see a feelgood musical than a triumph over adversity play, there’s still much to get out of this intense, memorable and gripping piece of theatre. Recommended.
Review by Chris Omaweng
VALIANT is an award-winning, critically acclaimed play that chronicles a century of war as seen through the eyes of women from across the globe. From victim to perpetrator to peacemaker, VALIANT takes verbatim interviews to create a compelling portrait of what women do in a time of war, and explores how it has shaped their lives and subsequently our own. Historically, war has spoken in a male voice; in VALIANT, women have their say.
Wednesday 6th July 2016
The So & So Arts Club, 6 Frederick’s Place, London, EC2R 8AB