Tap, tap, tap. For a play first performed more than 40 years ago, Events Whilst Guarding the Bofors Gun still maintains an almost frightening intensity, strong enough to unsettle even today’s audiences. Tap, tap, tap. In a play of such seething tension, the innocent tapping of Gunner O’Rourke’s boot against his bed post becomes a drum roll to battle, the steady ticking of a bomb on the verge of exploding.
While the countries outside their tiny bunker silently dare each other to press the self destruct button, seven British soldiers sent to guard the obsolete bofors gun in Germany play out their own Cold War. Each word becomes a provocation, each look a silent threat as the men begin to unravel.
This building tension is explored beautifully within James Perkins’ sparse, white set, as cold and uncomforting as the bitter winter that rages outside. The beds are too small. The space below too tight. The men wrestle with their confined space like animals in a cage, the raw masculine energy constantly threatening to spill over into the audience.
And yet, running alongside this undercurrent of aggression and frustration, is an air of playfulness. The way the soldiers flick between brooding men to sniggering boys is perhaps the most unsettling thing of all. Performed on the tenth anniversary of writer John McGrath’s death, Events Whilst Guarding the Bofors Gun depicts its characters with such realism that one cannot help but shrink away as they threaten to engulf us, only to be drawn closer in moments of and tenderness and warmth. The cast is outstanding and Lee Armstrong as Lance Bombardier Evans is particularly skilful at both repelling us with his potentially selfish actions and yet gaining our unreserved sympathies as his decisions become increasingly impossible.
At the eye of the storm sits Gunner O’Rourke. Verging on madness, O’Rourke’s obsession with his own destruction effectively conveys the absurdity of warfare. From the Irish soldiers asked to lay down their lives for a monarchy that haunts them to those fighting for an empire that conquered them, O’Rourke embodies the absurdity of sacrificing oneself for something empty and obsolete. Charles Aitken as the stricken solider is both terrifying and beguiling, an utter force of nature as he fights and cries and sings himself to his inevitable end. His eyes are captivating throughout, a dangerous mixture of malice and fear as one attempts, and consistently fails, to predict what he will do next. A monologue, told like a ghost story amongst a single flickering light, tells the story of O’Rourke’s friend, insisting he saw the devil in a field. Yet, one can positively see him sat upon O’Rourke’s shoulder, weaving his magic amongst the men who play at war.
Expertly directed by Robert Hastie, Events Whilst Guarding the Bofors Gun works to reach under your skin, the hairs on the back of your neck pricking with each tap, tap, tap of O’Rourke’s countdown to the end.
Events Whilst Guarding the Bofors Gun is running at the Finborough Theatre until 16th June. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.