Theatre Critic and Journalist

Johnny Got His Gun: A Torso and a Train of Thought

Johnny Got His Gun: A Torso and a Train of Thought

Published in the Guardian, 20.05.2014

After being hit by a shell towards the end of the first world war, Joe Bonham wakes from a coma to slowly deduce his situation. He’s lying in a hospital bed with no arms and no legs. Plus: no teeth, no eyes, no nose, no ears. He is just a torso and a train of thought.

Bonham is the protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s incandescent anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Published in 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland, the novel isn’t the most obvious candidate for a stage adaptation – especially because it’s not particularly well known and has been out of print for some time. Most of all, it sounds unstageable. How does an actor begin to play Joe?

For the British premiere of Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation, that task falls to Jack Holden, a Bristol Old Vic graduate who had a stint in War Horse. He and director David Mercatali have devised a set of rules. Joe has three modes: he thinks, he remembers and he senses. If the stage represents Joe’s mind spatially, Holden is free to pace around when thinking or remembering. But he sits stock still when focusing on his surroundings: tuning into the vibrations of a nurse’s footsteps, say, or the sun’s warmth on his neck.

“Joe’s in a unique position,” says Holden. “He was blown to pieces and he didn’t die. Those who died don’t get a say. Those who lived came back and felt grateful. Joe’s in-between.”

Mercatali takes over: “War is always fought by people like Joe, by the guy who hasn’t made the decisions and, really, knows nothing about the politics. He’s sent out to fight for theoretical concepts – liberty, decency – that just aren’t very tangible or real to him. What’s real for Joe is life. Living. He’s had life taken away from him, but, actually, he wants to live.”

But what does living mean for Joe? The first world war brought enormous advances in both weaponry and medicine; amputation, blood transfusion and cosmetic surgery all improved. “The doctors see Joe as one of their greatest achievements,” Mercatali continues. “We can keep someone alive, just without any understanding of what it is to live like that.”

This all adds up to a furious diatribe against war. Mercatali believes there remains a certain “romance” to the first world war that deploys hollow tropes and empty numbers to cauterise the horrors of battle. Johnny Got His Gun cuts through both: it shows one man as a living embodiment of war.

Holden says he’s proud to be pushing against that stock aesthetic. “A lot of it says, war should never be fought in this way again. What Johnny Got His Gun says is that war should never be fought in any way again. There’s a really fine line between romantic remembrance and the glorification of combat.”

It is interesting, then, to find it at the Southwark Playhouse, almost as proof that, despite Rattigan revivals aplenty, London’s fringe can still be an oppositional space. Mercatali has, so far, confined himself to the fringe, never directing at a “subsidised” mainstream venue. “You have a lot of freedom,” he explains. “You can take more risks on the fringe. You’re expected to take risks.”

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