Three soldiers representing three time periods and conflicts each speak with great sensual detail about returning to hearth and home, their dominant motivation a desperately soulful and tactile need to commune with the myth and reassurance of the land and people. Of course, the reality is anything but simple-the men arrive to bewilderment, impatience, indifference, hostility, communities and loved ones ill-equipped to comprehend or assist with the damage (psychological as well as physical) borne within them.
The stories play out amongst and upon a constantly revolving shipping container which visually supports the restlessness and destabilisation of the men and narratively underscores the transitory and impermanent state of mind they each suffer, all debris adrift. Cultural temperaments and behaviours may adjust slightly over time, but essential human yearnings and desire will remain constant-the tripartite structure poignantly addresses this point.
The first soldier, barely a man, returns to his sweetheart from the Western Front, trying his best to slip back into the easy comforts, but continually capsizes on the jagged shards of nightmarish wartime experiences; the second, staggering with blemished machismo, arrives from Afghanistan with dishonour, the disgraced star of a YouTube video in which he brutalises and kills a civilian in testosterone frenzy, the end result of being bred as a killing machine; rather bizarrely, the third figure is on a fraught journey home from some obscure future crisis in 2026, returning to a Britain despoiled by checkpoints, closed borders and civil unrest, the result of some catastrophic ravage from Brexit, perhaps-this speculative section, although confirming that the cycle of war will continue to spin, is the weakest link, its political grasp incongruous to the more emotionally personal resonance of the other tales.
Jared Garfield brings a bruised and wounded tenderness to 1918 skittish Joe, and Joe Layton sympathetically reveals the confusion and pain behind the bravado of 2013 officer Frank (he also, in a fluid, poised gender switch -without any guile-portrays Joe’s baffled homefront wife).
The central container set piece is utilised with tremendous, manifold imaginative verve, the four performers in kinetic concert with it, with slides and turns effortlessly suggesting shifting eras and locations (offices, corridors, homes, processing centres, and, when the actors scale its heights, a ship), aided momentously by the lighting and production design. Lives merge and diverge in intimate mosaics. War is hell in any time frame, and its participants casualties, the legacy in every which way life-long and shadowy, a condition this slick and showy, if sometimes overly busy production, illustrates skilfully. The Unreturning runs through 2 February