Johnny Got His Gun (directed by David Mercatili) revolves around the story of Joe Bonham, a young twenty-something American from Colorado. He enlists in the U.S. Army to serve in World War I. While abroad in Europe he is faced with the dangers and hardship of war, the side of war no-one speaks about. An explosion in the trenches injures Joe whilst he is visiting an allied camp, and with this the audience is immediately jettisoned into the play.
Joe (played by Jack Holden) is the only character in this 60-minute tour de force, adapted from the novel by Dalton Trumbo. Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation of the famous anti-war novel suits the formula of a one-man show. Smith makes Joe’s plight all the more evocative by not allowing the title character to have anyone to play off, making his struggle to communicate all the more real.
Holden’s portrayal is visceral and gut-wrenching during an (at times) macabre storyline. Joe is rendered to the bare minimum of what quantifies a human, barely kept alive after numerous surgeries; he is made blind and dumb as a consequence of this horrendous war. Without legs, arms, and barely any means of articulating his trauma to the world Joe must suffer in his head.
Throughout this trauma of being reduced to a living corpse, unable to communicate, Joe reflects heavily on his past. Revisiting moments with his family and his sweetheart back home. In America, Joe lived the American Dream of life on the frontier. He was a popular young man with many friends who would spend summers fishing and swimming in the Colorado River. He tries to maintain his sanity, but the flooding of memories at times proves too much for him. He soon realises he might not ever see his family again.
One of the most painful scenes is watching Joe struggle to tell time; he says so eloquently that time allows distant beings to live in the same world. As soon as a human escapes time, they have nothing to live for or against, and Joe makes it his mission to stay in the real world. His anguish is so evident, pulling the audience in, and they too long for him to articulate his entrapment to a nurse, doctor or anyone who will listen.
The 1938 novel seems just as necessary today, as it would have been decades after World War I and a year before the onset of another war. In a day and age when war seems the answer to any conflict of interest to Western powers, one must question the necessity of such violent action. Why is a country’s ‘liberty’ justification enough for thousands of deaths both military and civilian? These are questions Joe is left asking, and it is time someone listens to the cries of a witness who has seen it all.
Johnny Got His Gun played at the Southwark Playhouse.