On Wednesday 3rd December, I saw ‘Johnny Got his Gun’ at The Brewery Theatre in Bristol. Set in the trenches of France during World War 1 and tying in with a series of recent theatre productions marking the centenary of WW1, this was a stark and moving monologue detailing both the horrors of war and the remarkable strength of the human spirit when pushed to its very limits.
Adapted for the stage by Bradley Rand Smith, ‘Jonny Got his Gun’ tells the story of American Joe Bonham (played by Kaffe Keating) who marches off to war to the sound of cheers and brass bands playing, but soon wakes up in a nightmarish world, swaddled in bandages, disfigured, limbs amputated and unable to speak after being caught by a shell during the fighting. The dialogue skips from his present experiences in the hospital to his pre war life, speaking about the girl he loved and left behind, wistfully recalling the love and comfort of his relationship with his mother and the relationship with his father as he moved from boy to man. These memories of youth and a carefree existence juxtaposed with the terror of his current situation and his absolute inability to communicate his thoughts to anyone else make his battle to remain sane as his mind runs free all the more emotionally charged.
Never have I seen such a sparsely dressed stage. One man. One chair. 1 hour, 15 minutes. Clever use of lighting really brought the performance to life, almost bringing to it what music might bring to other shows. At first, I found it hard to engage with the piece, and the way the monologue jumped from the present to the past so quickly and without warning. Perhaps that says more about recent theatre I have seen, where the sets have been lavish, the performance has been full of movement, vibrancy and sensory overload. It didn’t take me long to tune in, and once I did, I was absolutely mesmerised. At many moments throughout the performance, you really could have heard a pin drop, and many times I felt like I was the only person in the theatre as I was so completely engaged with the internal struggles and battles Joe was experiencing. Having worked with people with communication difficulties, I felt the actor perfectly conveyed the frustrations, anger and fear of being unable to communicate your wishes, needs and thoughts, especially when it was clear to see how traumatised Joe Bonham was by the horrors he had seen and personally experienced. This is not a play that glorifies war, but rages against the futility of it. It left me feeling angry and saddened, but grateful for my own abilities to express myself and for all the freedoms I am so lucky to have and sometimes take for granted.
This is not an easy piece of theatre to watch, but it is well worth the effort. Moving, troubling and important, this performance is a real testament to Keating and his ability to draw the audience in. It was amazing to see what can be done with so little, meaning that the focus of the audience was entirely on the solo actor leaving him nowhere to hide. But his performance along with the adaptation for the stage meant that it was incredibly powerful and engaging.
‘Johnny Got His Gun’ is on at The Brewery Theatre until Saturday 6th December.
Reviewed by Karen Blake