“Strangers paid their respects to strangers – why?”
The word timely is often much abused by reviewers, usually in the context of ‘timely revival’, but there really is no better way to describe Neil Walker’s Do We Do The Right Thing?, a highly personal response to the act of remembrance and the way in which society interacts with notions of conflict-based loss and the role of the Armed Forces. I say timely for as Remembrance Day is fast approaching, and in a particularly charged year that marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, the annual declarations about what is or isn’t appropriate poppy etiquette have restarted and the Guardian have indulged in some basic trolling with Jonathan James’ takedown of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London.
The idea that there is a right or a wrong way to commemorate the war dead (or appreciate works of art for that matter) is one of the issues that lies at the heart of Walker’s play. Part investigation of the experience of the townspeople of Royal Wootton Bassett, part exploration of the impact of his own military childhood, Do We Do… is a patchwork quilt of a show – video and projections from past and present, autobiographical scenes played out as drama, verbatim material replicated in the ‘Recorded Delivery’ style pioneered by Alecky Blythe – and in Tommy Lexen’s production for his BeFrank company has a lovely cumulative warmth.
The Wootton Bassett sections are hugely fascinating. A town through which the bodies of military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan were repatriated, 345 dead passed through on 167 different occasions from 2007 to 2011 and what started as the local Royal British Legion paying their tributes turned into huge crowds of coach parties gathering to mark their own respects. Speaking to local businesspeople as well as those actually bereaved, Walker considers notions of grief tourism versus the genuine impulse of remembrance, even when it’s for strangers. The verbatim approach with all its ums, aahs and pauses replicated exactly is ideally suited here, capturing much of the strange ambivalence in talking about so charged a subject.
And combined with the more personal side as Walker delves into his family’s history whilst sorting through the effects in his old family home with his siblings, a similar uncertainty emerges. Having resented being a soldier’s son for much of his life and seeing his brother join up and his sister also marry into the forces, he has his own complicated relationship with the military – the trials and sacrifices it forced on him and his loved ones, the demands it placed when he was the only one around to care for their ailing mother. The evenhandedness with which the Wootton Bassett material is presented isn’t quite present here, this is Walker’s own journey after all, but he – along with Craig Hendry, Joanna Waters and Luke Shepherd – makes a compelling case for really asking ourselves why we feel the way we do when 11th November approaches.