According to director Martin O’Connor, this production about army widows was inspired by Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, a 17th century Spanish play to which Sheep bears no resemblance. In Fuenteovejuna, the villagers, urged by a woman, kill their local commander and blame it on a fountain, or sheep well – hence the title of tonight’s production, Sheep. According to one of O’Connor’s characters, soldiers join the army like sheep only to kill or be killed. So there’s a tenuous link there. The other connection O’Connor draws between tonight’s production and the Spanish play is female resistance to the ‘the male-dominated military machine’. Except that only one of the women in the play speaks out against war. Unsuccessfully. Her boyfriend still joins up. One of her female friends even becomes an army chef. Is the play about unsuccessful female resistance to the male-dominated military machine? Or lack of contemporary resistance at all? It’s unclear.
It’s also unclear which war the men are fighting, though I think that’s deliberate. A recent survey found that many Americans don’t know how many countries the US is bombing right now. I suspect the same is true of the UK.
Sheep opens with vases of lilies on white tablecloths and a group of women dressed for yet another funeral. The scenes cut between the war widows coming to terms with their experiences, the soldiers before and after they died, and a series of flashbacks. Each scene is unnecessarily introduced with a deafening blast of music and chapter title such as ‘Before He Died’ or ‘Online Survey’. The latter involves a feedback questionnaire for funeral services which is a tragicomic highlight of the show. The woman (Kirsty Orr) glued to social media throughout each funeral is also funny. But most of the jokes fall flat and most of the tragic scenes try too hard. The arguments for and against joining up are familiar and perhaps that’s why they don’t make for particularly convincing acting or scripts.
It sounds like the Tron Young Company did some exciting research into army advertising, wearing poppies and the roles that women play in military narratives, both in the past and today. I’m not saying that the outcome of this research should match the source material or Fuenteovejuna. It does not and that’s ok. It’s just a shame that the production has so much to build on and that the result is so underwhelming. Even the ending, a reading of war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The Glory of Women’, fails to add anything to tonight’s production.