Created in collaboration between Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth, The Unreturning presents a fractured examination of the lived experience of war; explored within the context of three different intervals of a 100-year-period spanning from the First World War, the modern day and a dystopian conflict in the near future. Whilst separated by time and space, the three by-lines are interwoven through universal themes of wartime horror, and question whether or not someone ever truly can return from a conflict zone.
Technically, Andrzej Goulding’s production design is exceptional. Located in and around a rotating shipping container, projection and carefully-planned adjustments to the container’s walls locate the piece smoothly and dynamically through different spheres of spatiality. In addition, sound design by Pete Malkin and lighting design by Zoe Spurr work harmoniously - both to aid the narrative and to disorientate the audience at times of intentional confusion.
While Anna Jordan’s script is intelligent in its triadic presentation, it relies heavily on the use of stereotype in its characterisation. As a result, characters are one-dimensional and lack a human familiarity from which the largely emotional narrative would have benefitted. For example, the present-day soldier is shunned by his community for his ill-justified violence towards Afghan citizens on duty, and a reporter casually suggests that perhaps the hostility towards him had in fact been facilitated by the Islamic Centre. It is a fleeting yet unhelpful comment that serves to exemplify a lack of nuance in the wider plot and in the current political context of wartime rhetoric.
Where the production excels, however, is in the well-conceived blend of theatrical techniques for which Frantic Assembly is best known. A particularly memorable scene saw the horrors of shell-shock and the onset post-traumatic stress disorder manifest themselves within Great War veteran George, portrayed sensitively by Jared Garfield. In true Frantic Assembly style, the wider ensemble of three further actors utilised physicality and a vivid use of wider stimuli to represent his suffering, with its non-verbal and interpretative nature affording the audience to formulate their own sense of his suffering individually, drawing on their own framework of toxic emotions.
The Unreturning explores the human elements of war; developing three cross-sections of varying experiences and formulating them through an emotive lens. Though aided by clever use of technology, the overarching narrative is undone by under-developed and stereotyped representations - a powerful statement about humanitarian tensions that remains unsatisfying in its execution.
The Unreturning runs at the Traverse Theatre until Saturday 27th October 2018.