Dead on Target
Some of you will know what I mean when I say that men go into something of a climax when recounting their exploits in the army - the distances they travelled, the knolls they conquered, and the muddy depths they waded through.
It is perhaps not surprising then that White Men with Weapons should be such a hit, since it delivers all the hearty, back-slapping humour of a good session of reminiscing with your old army mates.
But it also provides a great deal more in its stinging critique of the absurdity of military life and its obsession with enemies than can disappear overnight when political winds shift direction.
This monodrama features playwright-actor Greig Coetzee playing more than a dozen roles comprising soldiers in the old South African Defence Force (Coetzee wrote this play just after finishing national service), providing a detailed picture of life in the military before and just after the end of apartheid.
Coetzee alternates between English and Boer characters who, in a bigoted society, become strange allies, united by the colour of their skin. The struggle against apartheid forms a backdrop that provides a link between these white men, who must deal with political events as they unfold.
Coetzee's scintillating array of characters burst with colour and humour. In the opening scene a soldier in his briefs tries desperately to get everything in order for the morning bunk inspection. He goes to ludicrous lengths to get his bed sheet creased in just the right places at the perfect 45 degree angle, muttering under his breath that you need a maths degree to make a bed.
Another wonderful character is a rifleman who refuses to carry a rifle. The irony of this situation is not lost on him, yet he performs his role in the platoon - to carry a foldable table that he lays out for the platoon sergeant when they reach their selected spot for training - with a cavalier air that is infectiously funny. During guard duty he carries a whistle instead of a gun, which proves to be a strangely appropriate weapon in the face of the only intruder he ever encounters - a wild rabbit.
There's also the dangerously horny and effeminate cook with a talent for christening new soldiers. He calls the latest addition to the bunk "Little Boy Blue" having spotted his "horn" while in the shower. And a cocky Boer sergeant whose English is "not so powderful" as we would say in Singapore. Forced to memorise the lines of the lesson he must deliver to his soldiers, he flares up when the men laugh at his mispronunciations, swearing in a heady mixture of Dutch and broken English. "Even if my mouth is smiling," he declares, "my eyes are horror!"
Coetzee swings from one character to another with the effortless grace of a trapeze artist, and one can only peer up in awe to see such mastery of the craft of acting. Within moments of each switch we know through his gait and the timbre of voice what kind of man we are seeing.
Coetzee also captures the linguistic style and idiom of his characters admirably. At times the language ascends to poetry. Tortoises are "armoured like us", and ambushed soldiers "scatter into an explosion of fucks".
Coetzee's play exposes much of the white bigotry in South Africa through visceral descriptions of the gang rape of a Cooli girl, and the murder of a black man. Yet there is also a hint of sympathy in the telling, for these men seem forced by the circumstances of their military existence to rationalise their behaviour, however morally reprehensible it may be.
Nelson Mandela's release, the un-banning of the African National Congress, and the end of apartheid drive the final nail through such attempts at rationalisation. With no enemy left, the men turn on each other. Using a perverse but immutable logic, a commanding officer declares that the enemy is now Bravo company simply because "the enemy is whoever I say it is". A staff sergeant tries to drown his sorrows in drink, unable to comprehend how he could have been fighting the wrong war.
Two weeks after September 11, Arundhati Roy wrote in an article in The Guardian, "Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we'll lose sight of why it's being fought in the first place." White Men with Weapons is a good play because it is a wonderful story that is told extremely well. It is a great play because it draws sharp and important insights from a historical experience that is too recent to be forgotten, but has not received the attention it deserves.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /