The year is 1991. The First Gulf War is in full swing and four British soldiers are stationed on Saudi Arabia’s border, waiting to engage in the theatre of war. For Gabe (Akshay Kumar) and Matt (Robert Wilde) the head of the unit, they can wait patiently and keep themselves occupied. However, Deno (Kerim Hassan) and Ray (Romario Simpson) are bored out of their minds and channel their frustration into ever-increasing boistorous behaviour. Often Gabe is singled out for not behaving like ‘one of the lads’.
Asides from the long periods of inactivity, what proves to be tiresome are the endless rounds of injections from the medical staff, supposedly to prevent regional-specific ailments. However, many of the solders complain of severe adverse side-effects, which senior officers (including Matt) refute. In any case, the soldiers’ time in the field culminates with one eventful evening which changes things forever, especially for Gabe and Matt…
While the first half of Syndrome lays the groundwork for understanding the British soldiers, the second half of the play fleshes out the characters as they adjust back to civilian life. In the case of Deno and Ray, their boorish personas have given way to a more nuanced and mature understanding of the world. Both Simpson and Hassan drive home how exasperating living with ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ is. However, their characters are more aggrieved by being fobbed off by the medical fraternity than anything else. In some ways their predicament draws parallels with sufferers of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and the ‘shellshock’ victims of the First World War.
As for Wilde and Kumar’s characters, there are changes afoot too. In the case of Matt, ‘that night’ during his last tour opened ‘Pandora’s Box’, and all things he ‘knew with certainty’ about ‘relationships’ and ‘compatibility’ are now clouded with doubt. As Tayze, a regular ‘acquaintance’ in Matt’s post-Gulf life, Kumar’s second role in the play couldn’t be more different from the first half – the ‘ying’ to Gabe’s’ ‘yang’. As a ‘man of the world’, Tayze is able to steer Matt from romanticising ‘matters of the heart’.
Under Jack Brett Anderson’s direction, the polarised worlds of the military and ‘civvy street’ are well-defined and the set is as versatile as it is well-conceived. It is, however, the attention to detail in Tina Jay’s writing that really stands out, whether it is the pictures she paints with words regarding the burning oil fields in the theatre of war or the human collateral in all its forms as a result of Operation Desert Storm.
© Michael Davis 2020
Syndrome runs at Tristan Bates Theatre, London until 29th February.