IRISH playwright Rory Mullarkey examines conscription in his latest work, The Grandfathers. He tells Fiona Audley about the research that had him branded a ‘spy’.
National conscription ended in Britain 50 years ago but teenagers in a range of other nations are still regularly forced to face the front line.
For playwright Rory Mullarkey the plight of these boy – and girl – soldiers was a topic ripe for theatrical picking.
So when commissioned by the National Theatre to produce a piece for their annual Connections programme, a short to be taken up by companies across Britain and Europe, a trip to Russia was quickly on the cards.
The 26-year-old, whose military family hails from Co. Galway, hoped the former Soviet state – where a 12-month draft still exists for men aged 18-27 – would prove the perfect spot to research his topic.
But he returned from his research expedition empty-handed, warned off by wary locals and branded a ‘spy’.
Thankfully, his father and his grandfather were both army men, and his dad – whose family are spread across counties Galway and Dublin, helped the young writer out with a few connections here in Britain.
“When commissioned by the National Theatre the first thing I did was take a research trip to Russia.” Mullarkey explains. “But they all thought I was a spy and wouldn’t tell me anything about conscription. Luckily, my dad got me access to young men and women at Pirbright training base just outside London, who were far less wary.”
Mullarkey used the stories of these young men and women training up for the British army, to inform his 45 minute play The Grandfathers – which tells the tale of eight young conscripts training to be soldiers and will be performed at the National Theatre’s new Southbank venue The Shed this month.
“Although the play was a supposed to be about Russia, and that comes through in the names of characters and the fact that they are in compulsory military service in a modern setting, it’s actually more about the experience of young British people who have joined the army,” the writer, now based in Finchley, North London, explains.
For the playwright – born in Canada and largely raised on military bases before settling in Manchester and later moving to London – the theatrical platform still allowed him to tell the tale of Russia’s enforced soldiers, but through the relationships developed by the young people who find themselves on the journey.
“As I had these conversations with these young soldiers in Britain the play came together quite quickly,” he admits. “It became a piece about people being in that national service situation, rather than a comment on modern warfare or masculinity or anything like that.”
He added: “It’s very much about these young characters and their actions rather than anything ascribed by their gender or background, its more about the characters’ personalities than anything else.”
The finished piece was sent to theatre companies across Britain last year – including Mullarkey’s former drama school in Manchester – and Portugal, where the National Theatre has links, and even as far as Australia.
But it was an adaptation by the Bristol Old Vic Youth Theatre Company that was chosen as the most impressive version by Mullarkey and a panel of National Theatre judges.
“The Bristol Company put on a really great production of the piece,” Mullarkey insists.
“I was totally blown away by it, the spirit and the warmth is amazing.”
The Bristol Old Vic Youth Company will bring its production to London this month, for a four day run at The Shed. Mullarkey hopes theatre fans will come out to join them there.
“This piece is fast paced, funny and will hopefully raise some questions about the way we think about war and our young soldiers in far flung parts of the world,” he added. “It’s moving, as well as entertaining and I think proves a nice, short evening at the theatre.”
The Grandfathers by Rory Mullarkey runs at The National Theatre’s The Shed on the South Bank from July 9-13.