A clash of cultures provide drama in the theatre of war
The Theatre Royal Plymouth has a hard-earned and enviable reputation for encouraging new writers and working with cutting-edge companies.
The two come together with The Empire, the second full-length play by award-winning writer DC Moore, in a co-production between The Drum Theatre in Plymouth and the Royal Court in London.
Even the Theatre Royal's artistic director Simon Stokes is impressed, calling it one of the best dramas he's ever seen – "Gripping, powerful and brilliantly acted."
The play, directed by Mike Bradwell, opened to fantastic reviews for its six-week sell-out London run and last night began a two-week run in Plymouth – the only other theatre where it is being performed.
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The Empire is set in Afghanistan. It is Helmand at the height of summer. Gary, a British soldier, and Hafizullah, his Afghan colleague, guard an injured young prisoner, Zia, found in the heat of battle.
Gary wants answers, Hafizullah just wants to make it through the day, and Zia thinks there's been a big mistake.
Joe Armstrong (Robin Hood, A Passionate Woman), who plays Gary, says that the design team of Bob Bailey, Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound) have worked hard to create the atmosphere.
"A lot of people comment on the power of the set, and they have created a claustrophobic atmosphere," says Joe. "It is quite a 'physical' set and you get a strong sense of what's going on. I think the design is very important. It is one of the first things that happens when you do any play – you have a big meeting with the heads of departments and you see a model of the set and hear a vision for that design. It helps you to visualise quite clearly what the space will look like.
"It is a very dusty set and they create a smoke effect. You have a really powerful-looking room in front of you with bullet holes in the walls and gun pellets on the floor.
"You feel quite quickly that you are in that place. We've all seen images on the telly on the news and in documentaries."
As well as watching news footage and studying documentaries to get a feel for the subject, Joe and the other actors went to meet some of the men who had served in Afghanistan.
"We went to meet the Grenadier Guards in central London and spoke to a range of ranks. I play a Lance Corporal and Rufus Wright plays Simon, an officer," he added. "The men were quite forthcoming and I was really keen to listen to the guys of my sort of rank. I learnt a lot about the situation that was of real interest to me. I never really knew much about the Army but I kind of had my opinions about what was happening.
"What struck me was that I was not really sure that the guys had much of an idea of why they were there."
Although Afghanistan is the backdrop to the action, Joe says that The Empire isn't necessarily a war play.
"It's essentially a play with five different people in a small space in different states of mind, clashing," he says. "It's not as political as people might think. When I first read the play I thought the dialogue was really snappy and I could see how dramatic it is. There seemed to be a nice interaction between the characters.
"It is first and foremost a dramatic situation between people stuck in a room. We find out why people's emotions are heightened. But it doesn't provide any answers about the war in Afghanistan."