The pain of former soldiers brought to stage by one of their own.
'Soldier On' is a play that explores conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder in the military.
After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how do you make sure people still care about the stress-related mental health problems suffered by some who have served in our armed forces?
One way is to write a play about it — and a funny one at that.
Jonathan Lewis, an army scholar-turned-actor and playwright, is preparing for a month-long run of his new play, Soldier On, at the West End’s The Other Palace theatre.
It revolves around a meta-plot in which the characters, a group of ex-military personnel, put on a play. Half of the cast of Soldier On are themselves ex-soldiers, including Max Hamilton-Mackenzie, an ex-member of the Royal Green Jackets who served in Kosovo and, like Lewis, is Jewish.
It follows the struggles of director Harry — based on Lewis himself, played by an old university acting chum, David Solomon — as his play-within-a-play is foiled at every turn.
Inspired by the true stories of ex-servicemen and women (as well as their partners and children), Lewis spent five years developing the piece.
Conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the military community are ripe for examination in a theatrical context, he says.
“What you get is a situation where a lot of people are ticking time-bombs. I know there are charities doing what they can to help these people, but there needs to be more of a focus on mental health for veterans.”
Participation in the performing arts can also be a therapeutic method for those who have served in the military, Lewis argues.
“This is a catharsis. It’s not always solved with drugs. I think the antidote to destruction is creativity. It’s a great way to deal with the challenges one faces when you return from war.”
Lewis’s best-known work to date is the award-winning Our Boys, based on his time recuperating from an injury which would ultimately put paid to his military ambitions.
So far, he has eschewed themes of Jewishness in favour of following themes related to the military because, as he says, it is a world he knows.
However, that may change. Lewis, who grew up in Eltham, South East London, is descended on his mother’s side from Russian Jews who settled in Llanelli, South Wales.
Their story, which began with a pair of immigrant brothers (one of whom was his grandfather) marrying a pair of sisters and ended up with a broiges over their scrap-metal company, is one he says he will one day use for a play.
Solomon, whose parents were members of Calcutta’s Jewish community before coming to the UK, via Chennai, in India, will come out of a 25-year acting hiatus to star in Soldier On. After meeting at the University of Exeter, he said Lewis was the only person who could have persuaded him to do so, although his motivation has shifted since rehearsals began.
“I thought I would never get back on stage — I just had an image of me doing a horrendous play to an audience of four people, with three of them being members of my family.
“But when it began and I learned half the cast would be veterans, I couldn’t say no. The men and women in the military who do this are amazing — the sacrifice and commitment they display.
“The problem is still there. People are still suffering. They fought for our country and they should be taken care of.”