Kate Lovell goes to see the mask-led work of Vamos Theatre present their latest production A Brave Face at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, now touring nationally.
Created from extensive research into post-traumatic stress, and a great deal of time spent talking to serving soldiers and veterans, A Brave Face distils Vamos’ findings into one story, that of a very young soldier’s experience of combat, and the aftermath. The core of the story focuses on life post-tour, and the soldier’s experience of post-traumatic stress.
Vamos perform entirely in fixed masks, with no dialogue – all the storytelling is visual. This makes all shows accessible to a D/deaf audience, which the company promote in their literature; they also work with D/deaf facilitators who run mask workshops. It means that we never learn the name of our protagonist, but are no less emotionally attached as a result.
The absence of dialogue allows for a real attendance to the storytelling, which is incredibly powerful and clear. The opening of A Brave Face neatly exposes an often-overlooked uncomfortable truth about the British military system. The UK is one of a minority of countries that allows children aged 16 upwards to sign up to the army, and can fight on the front lines – under 20 countries worldwide allow under 18s to enlist.
It is poignant to watch as a teenage boy plays computer games at the show’s start, before being joined by his much younger sister, with whom he plays and messes around with, only interrupted by his Mum inviting him to pick out shirts and ties for his upcoming army interview. The simplicity of this symbolic intrusion of the adult world, with its business clothes and insistence on sorting it ‘right now’, into the world of childhood and play, sets the tone for the bold storytelling style of the piece as a whole.
Vamos are a company who clearly have a strong commitment to the needs of their audience. Prior to the show’s start, there is the offer of a trigger warning sheet which details key plot points within the show, highlighting elements that have the potential to cause distress. For a show exploring post-traumatic stress, this is particularly important and it’s a testament to the company that they have created this resource. Trigger warnings are currently all too often overlooked, even with shows that have explicitly distressing themes. It’s encouraging to encounter a company so carefully considering the potential access barriers to an audience, and doing what they can to remove them.
The physical world that the Vamos performers create is extraordinary. The full masks worn wear a fixed expression, but such is the detailed nuance of the performers’ movements, the mask expressions themselves appear to evolve along with the character, reflecting where they are at each point in the story. The performer taking on the role of the young soldier himself begins with a look of teenage innocence, but by the show’s end, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is transformed, a different person.
Mentioned in the programme notes as directly taken from a true-life experience, the most powerful image of the show is when our soldier, wracked with the symptoms of as-yet-untreated post-traumatic stress, reaches a point of such feverish distress, he takes refuge within the household wheelie bin. It is a place he feels safe at this point of psychosis. The imagery is silent but speaks volumes about the way in which society can treat veterans returning from combat who cannot or do not want to join military parades and sport shining medals.
Above all else, A Brave Face is a compelling story, beautifully told with Vamos’ signature mask style. But it also serves as a call to arms for all of us to remember and to challenge the hidden cost of sending our young people out into the most extreme of circumstances before they are grown.
Vamos Theatre’s A Brave Face is now touring extensively, including numerous relaxed performances and veteran-specific events, calling at Colchester, Horsham, Warwick, Ipswich, Jersey, Birmingham and dozens more. See here for a full list of tour dates/show times.