York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver Festival has been bringing some exciting new work to the theatre’s studio venue, and Metal Rabbit’s Johnny Got His Gun is no exception. Amidst the awesome creative chaos of the festival, I managed to catch this powerful one-man show about loss of identity and the struggle to take hold of it again, adapted from the novel of the same name by Dalton Trumbo.
Johnny Got His Gun revolves around World War One soldier Joe Bonham (Kaffe Keating) and his return from the front line. During the conflict, a shell hit Joe and his comrades, killing and severely wounding many of them. Joe, however, survived, but at a cost: the loss of his arms and much of his face. He winds up being trapped in a hospital bed, and the play follows his inner conscience as he recounts the events of the fighting as well as his memories of the time before, including his frustrations with the surgeons and officers who surround him. He ultimately unravels the emotional torment experienced by many of the war’s abandoned soldiers, left powerless and alone in a world they believe has forgotten them.
Keating is superb as the energetic young man whose freedom has been taken away at the hands of the war, and strikingly evokes the torment and pain from Bradley Rand Smith’s exciting adaptation of the original novel. He bounds about the theatre’s studio space, getting the balance between love and hatred just right – showing the anguished and traumatised mindset of many of the war’s soldiers.
The set design, despite the fact that there isn’t one, is also superb, with the blank black canvas surrounding Joe further empowering his delivery of the dialogue. There’s also an awesome correlation between the light and sound in the piece, with fantastic imagery being generated on the cue of Joe’s lines. He takes us to the swirling rivers of Colorado and to the house of his girlfriend before the war, showing us his peace and compassion that has ultimately been taken away from him. He shows us this through his conveyance of the nightmares and flashbacks he experiences, going into detail about the dark and unforgiving times he fought through, and how they’ve affected him to this day. We can see, through the angry, sensitive delivery of the lines, the emotional torment of the character. This ultimately makes the production much more accessible, and allows the audience to grapple with the themes of the piece.
Johnny Got His Gun is a fantastic piece of theatre that clearly illustrates the torment and pain of those who fought in our war. It’s fitting that the production took place on Remembrance Day, as it beautifully stands as a tribute to those we must not forget.
Johnny Got His Gun played as part of TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal. For more information, see the York Theatre Royal website.