However in what I think is the most mature and most thematically sophisticated premise of anything he has previously written, there are some frustrating stumbling blocks in performance. It was a bold decision to have no set, only using the necessary props. This put a lot of pressure on the play and the actors to push the audience to make that imaginary leap into the world of the play. It's great credit to the actors that I did make that leap and to be fair, credit to the writing. However in a performance which, in eschewing set/light and sound design (apart from a nice ironic opening of 'God Save The Queen), places everything on the writing, you need an almost flawless piece of writing.
The play works in theory: a low-ranking soldier accidentally opens a letter that is addressed to his major. The contents of the envelope would spell the end of the major but ruin the company's reputation. Should the soldier hand in the letter? However I don't buy it in performance that Corporal Miles Benedict (Tapiwa Mugweni) could completely by accident open a letter that isn’t addressed to him. There is a slight similarity in the name of the major whose letter he accidentally opens, Michelle Benkin (Katie McKenna), but then Benedict starts the play looking at the letter faced down, turning it over to the address once he has already opened it- and he has clearly been looking at it for some time. Of course theatre always has contrivances but there are many slightly more likely contrivances, such as blurred handwriting or the writer of the letter getting the surname or first name wrong. Whilst it was a nice character insight that Benedict was a fan of handwritten letters, I didn't find it a plausible excuse.
The other sticking point of the play, though it is a strength for most of it, is that we never find out the contents of the letter. It provides a good dramatic thrust; after all, we all love a nosy peek into someone else’s much more interesting life and it makes sure that the play isn’t just about the letters switching hands . I thought the tension was handled well and the introduction of the photographs ramped up the drama nicely.
Of course you could leave the contents ambiguous but it felt like untapped potential. For me, this was key to the play and where the audience's sympathies were meant to lie. Benedict refers to the photos Benkin is in as ‘disgusting’ but that could be all manner of things, particularly as Benedict is shown to be particularly morally upright so might condemn outright something that others would see as a grey area. The conclusion the audience are left to draw is that they are in some way pornographic as Benkin seems embarrassed as opposed to distraught. Even if that may seem like a bit of an easy choice for a female character in power, it could have been an interesting thing to explore. Maybe Hinds is challenging the audience's prejudices but if you're going to do that, you need to then undercut that.
By the way, McKenna is excellent in the role; whilst her character is corrupt, her ruthlessness is impressive and ironically enough she maintains a strong amount of dignity, avoiding the trap of hysteria. However without knowing the nature of her crime, it stacks the odds against her, making the play seem more sexist than it probably is. Even if Hinds wanted to portray her as the epitome of corruption in the army therefore completely unsympathetic, the contents of the letter and photos should have been stated. I do appreciate that the themes and issues that arise from the letter could potentially have been overshadowed by the juicy contents but I don’t think that it would have, and I think it has a bearing on the kind of play we are dealing with. Is it about army traditionalism and conservatism and the perceived threat of women in a male institution, or is it a traitorous political scandal or simply a bit of financial dodgy dealing? Even if the contents aren't revealed, the audience should be able to guess. Perhaps it was a directorial choice as well because- maybe I'm wrong on this- but the actors didn't seem to have been told. That's interesting as an experiment but it makes the play feel a little cold, with a premise that has the opportunity to make incisive statements about gender, tradition, patriotism, money, society.
I did enjoy Mugweni’s portrayal of Benedict though. Mugweni radiates such natural charm and integrity that whether he is right or wrong to consider not handing in the letter, or whether he is right in proclaiming that the content of it is disgusting, you can’t help but see him as a good guy who just wants to protect the integrity of the company and the army.
Hinds seems very comfortable in this environment and I could see the potential, particularly in the character of Benkin, so potentially reworking and extending the play would allow Hinds to take her character further. Though the piece does have flaws and was perhaps too ambitious for a thirty minute piece, it has a really interesting dramatic and thematic basis and I hope that Hinds’ next piece will push it further.