The latest production from Farnham Maltings has been a labour of love for writer/director Kevin Dyer, who interviewed over 100 military wives over several years, before compiling anecdotes and stories into the story of Chloe and Ashley that we see on stage. We got together with Kevin and asked him about the process of writing this unique piece.
What inspired you to start working on The Man Who?
This project started off as a piece called ‘Mr and Mrs Macbeth’. It was about what it was like to be the wife of that warrior man called Macbeth. At some stage, as I was looking at the story’s connections with today’s world, I spoke to a woman whose husband was at war… and then the idea took its first turn. So the first draft was a dovetailing of scenes set in Macbeth’s castle and scenes set in the home of a woman whose husband was going to Afghanistan. I wrote scenes in pentameters and verse for the Macbeth scenes – sort of ’new’ Shakespeare. But all those ended up in the trash folder as I realised the most compelling way to write what I wanted to write about was to tell the story of Chloe and her man Ashley.
How did you start gathering people to interview?
Facebook. I asked friends if they knew anyone. That was the beginning. Also, Farnham Maltings – the commissioner of the play – connected me to The Army in Aldershot. How I got to connect with military wives choirs I cannot recall. But talking to those women was fascinating and inspiring.
How did you find the process of interviewing so many people?
I loved it. I think people want and need to tell their stories – in fact we all do it all the time. All I had to do was find the right questions and listen. I did find the people and their lives fascinating, touching, funny and sometimes desperately sad.
Were there any answers that took you by surprise?
Hundreds, because people were telling me intimate details of a life so unlike my own. I was surprised by the sensitivity and vulnerability of serving soldiers and by the honesty of people, the trust they had in me. I asked people to recount in detail what the 10 seconds were like when they said goodbye.. And the ten seconds when he came back. The variation in those stories was remarkable. That is why the play isn’t about all military wives and all soldiers – that would be impossible. It is just about Chloe and Ashley – but hopefully there is something in their personal stories that connects with all of us.
Tell us about a particularly memorable story or interviewee.
The ones that cried? The ones that shouted? The ones that lied? There are so many. I tried not to record people’s names, because I didn’t ever want to compromise them – but the stories will never leave me. One woman told me how much she loved her husband – physically, emotionally, in every way… but how she wished she’d never met him. Because it had also ruined her life, being married and chained to a soldier.
Which stories became part of the play and why?
There isn’t quite a logical answer to that question. The ones that took my fancy, the ones that fitted in with the other ones, the ones that had a truth greater than themselves. I also knew, after a while, that I was writing about a front line soldier and not an officer, and about a woman that would be married to that man.
Did the characters come out of the stories, or vice versa? It’s a question that always comes up for writers: story or character led? I think a story is ‘the things that characters do’, so the play is a sequence of events that happen to Chloe. And Chloe is made from the things that she does and which happen to her. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, she doesn’t have to be called Chloe. But now she is and I can’t imagine her being called anything else.
When did you decide to have Samantha (Trussler, a military wife who tells her own story alongside the actors) as part of the play?
There are two questions here: 1. why have a real ‘military wife’ telling her story, and 2, why Sam. I cannot remember when or how the ‘real military wife’ idea came to me. But I’m glad it did. It not only interests people when I tell them about it, but it adds another layer of truth to the true stories in the acted out play. I am always interested in truth – and now even more so in this world of lies and false news and political manipulation. When I work with actors I always talk about truth and the truths that underlay the story. Having a real person telling their story, alongside real people acting out real stories gives us different layers of reality. The text of the play, of course, is full of real words, by real people – and it’s full of real stories told by real people… but there is something (and it might be part of the cultural phenomenon that ‘reality TV’ is part of) that draws us into real people doing real things right in front of our eyes. And why Sam Trussler? Because… well, you’ll have to come and listen to her telling her life story, and then you’ll understand.
What can an audience expect when they come to see the show?
Theatre. (Because ’The Man Who…’ is clearly a theatrical event. It is neither written or performed like any play or TV show.) And real stories about real people just like them. And extraordinary stories too – about love and caring and families and how we try to hold it all together.
If this show was a playlist of 4 – 5 songs, what would they be?
Well, the play does have it’s own playlist. It has a fascinating filmic underscore and also some icons pop songs – the song Chloe heard when she met Ash’, her favourite song from choir which she might sing for you if you’re lucky, the song she plays at home when life is getting her down and she she needs to dance to like a woman who’s crazy.
The Man Who Left is Not the Man Who Came Home is touring from 26 February, to venues nationwide. See if we’re coming near you on our tour schedule