Callum Mardy as Kyle in PAPER CUT at Park Theatre. Photo courtesy Park Theatre website.

IN BRIEF: Complex, harrowing war drama highlighting unseen costs of war is strongly acted and compassionately written.

Returning servicemen finding the world – and themselves – changed irrevocably has been a topic for drama for over a century, from fascinating films including The Lost Squadron in 1932, The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and Coming Home in 1978 to stage plays, the latest of which is Andrew Rosendorf’s PAPER CUT, which finally has a London run at Park Theatre’s 90 space, after its original run at Theatre503 was cruelly cancelled by Covid’s debut in March 2020.

Paper Cut is an engrossing exploration of what drives American men into the military and the devastating, unforeseen price they often pay in their search for belonging.

The focus of the play is Kyle, an American army sergeant fighting the war in Afghanistan. Kyle is a sergeant who is admired by his men, so when he is devastatingly injured by an IED, one of his subordinates, Chuck, saves him. There are many layers behind Chuck’s actions, not least because of the close personal relationship he has with Kyle. Kyle and Chuck are gay, and the military is not a welcoming place for gay people. Discharged and sent home, Kyle’s biggest war is now the one raging inside him.

Heavily-drugged, memory-impaired Kyle has a bigger fight on his hands as he returns to a country which respects the idea of servicemen but doesn’t understand them and their trauma, or adequately support them, bitterly explored when Kyle attempts dating online and gets a quick rejection when revealing himself to his prospective date. The end of his military career and its “belonging”, his unresolved identity issues, phantom pain in his absent foot, the flashbacks, the unaddressed PTSD ramifications – all these factors conspire to create the new war which rages inside Kyle’s head.

The play centres around three of Kyle’s relationships; with his brother Jack, with his lover/comrade Chuck and with an online hookup, Harry – all of which he attempts to “cut off” to help him manage his feelings, but two out of three survive.

Kyle’s tortured relationship with his gay brother, his only “family”, fractured by Kyle outing him to the family some years earlier is fraught with anger, guilt and blame. As nurse Jack is gradually allowed to become part of Kyle’s support system the two navigate towards a better understanding of what they have in common.

Kyle finally comes to some sort of terms with his gayness and his feelings for Chuck, and the closing of the play offers at least some hope that the two men, both changed by horrific wartime experiences, may help and support each other in each other’s recovery and survival, to find their own way of belonging in a way that celebrates rather than suffocates.

A compassionate, ambitious and complex play, it has a lot to say and prompts many interesting questions, which its limited length does not have time to explore. The actors make the most of their opportunities. Callum Mardy as Kyle gives a volatile, insightful performance of vulnerability and courage as he attempts to come to terms with the physical and emotional damage wreaked upon him. Joe Bolland as Jack effectively embodies the caring nature of brother Jack shot through with the pain of their shared history and unresolved issues. Prince Kundai as Chuck was a little difficult to follow for the first ten minutes of the play, it was hard to get an ear on his accent and it was a struggle to understand him, however, this resolved itself after some time and he had some effective moments later in the play. With fewer opportunities, Tobie Donovan as disconnected and uncomprehending “date” Harry did what he could with the character material he was given.

Set, lighting and sound designs were stark and serviceable. Staging and direction by Scott Hurran were sympathetic and sensitive to the needs of the actors and the script.
For many men whose family history is in the military, their enlistment seems a given – a way to belong to something in ways that their lives may not have offered opportunities otherwise. But PAPER CUT is a valuable window into this insular and unreal world, exposing “the sacrifices you make without realising you’ll be making them” (as Chuck says), the most important being the avoidance of understanding themselves by sacrificing their sense of self for a false sense of belonging, on someone else’s terms, submerging themselves in an unquestioning and inflexible structure.

How can one come to terms with idea that a comrade can also be a threat, a friend (or even lover) also an enemy? This seductive idea of finding belonging in the military which denies your existence or your right to be yourself is the unending war that armies wage upon their own soldiers. PAPER CUT is a helpful and compassionate addition to the many vital conversations around identity, humanity and social responsibility.

PAPER CUT runs at Park Theatre to July 1st. Details and tickets here

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