FringeReview UK 2020
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, World War II and the Korean War, Beyond Glory tells the stirring, emotional and heroic true stories of eight recipients of the Medal of Honour. Their stories are told by one actor, Steve Scott.
Beyond Glory gathers these men together in the present to look back on the defining moments of their lives and to examine the meaning of courage, duty, and ultimately, humility.
The play was adapted and performed as a one-man show by Stephen Lang. Steve Scott has performed this show at the LA Fringe, where he won Best Actor in the Fringe and at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Based in the Grove Theatre, Eastbourne an eager audience gathered for this one-man show, presented by Steve Scott.
The show’s premise is the telling of the true-life accounts of eight Medal of Honour recipients from three very different American wars. This introduces us to a cast of characters that differ radically in age, experience, motivation and ethnicity.
Rather than use the stage, the performance area is set in front of the stage, putting the actor on the same level as his audience lending an intimacy and immediacy to the show.
From the beginning, we see the importance of the American military tradition, its culture and importance to their psyche. The introductory music and walk on enhancing this message, although the costume shows us this may not be as straightforward as it first appears.
Steve is a tall guy, this together with a serious expression gives him a certain gravitas. Whether we can see him as an elderly war hero, well that is a bit harder to do.
Initially, we meet John Finn, he’s 92 and we learn how he was recruited, his military history, why he received the Medal of Honour and some key events from his personal life. This is interspersed with audio cues that move the narrative along. He gives us some humour in his account, this stopping the performance from being unduly lachrymose or heart-rending.
The opening monologue foreshadows the structure of the show, it tells us we can laugh and introduces us to some of the key themes. The interplay of complex cultural and historical themes is an essential part of the show, they give it complexity and depth.
This is an outstandingly well-written script. The use of language, the emotional resonances and the themes of identity, nationhood, the military and how they relate to being a person are well-drawn. In and of itself the stories stand on their own merit. Do not be mistaken into thinking that we are being emotionally cudgled into an anti-war piece.
The narrative has an authenticity to it, these are largely stories told in their own words, something the actor allows to come through in the telling. For this alone, this play is worth seeing.
That said the play is very verbal. There are a lot of words and not much space in the run time for Steve to get the lines across. This can lead to an unevenness in the pacing, some bits pass too quickly to get the point, understand the question or catch the humour.
When telling war stories, there are often told with jokes and quips, for many it is part of the ‘coming to terms’ process. There is a lot of humour in this telling, not of all of which was grasped by the audience. Whilst it is not a comedy and it should not be seen as one, the laughter helps move the piece along, provides relief from the seriousness of the subject matter and adds an emotional depth to the piece. It also serves to connect the actor to the audience and the show may benefit for more focus on this element of the performance.
Steve skilfully uses the audio cues and his onstage costume changes are well handled. They don’t disrupt the flow.
There is an inherent difficulty in portraying eight different characters, of varying ages and ethnicities. Whilst the script and the costume changes go some way to helping the audience differentiate most of the work has to be done by the actor. Hearing and perceiving are subjective, we all experience the performance in a different way and as a one wouldn’t expect that all of the characterisations ‘worked’. This means we connect with some better than others.
Developing eight separate elderly American accents, is a significant feat. In this case some further work may help the audience appreciate when one character stops and another starts.
One of the vocal issues the performance dealt with related to ethnic accents. Not all of the Medal of Honour recipients were white American. Given the heightened cultural sensitivity around race and ethnicity, this was adeptly judged. Enough inflexion to convey the cultural differences but not enough for it to become a parody, or stereotypical. The scripting also helps in this respect.
It is worth noting that racism is explicitly addressed in the script, as are the attitudes of the soldiers to conflict. The wars being examined were fought against the backdrop of a country where racism was the norm, and this has an inevitable impact on the American military tradition.
Beyond Glory offers the actor a variety of ways to portray the piece. Judging the emotional depth of the performance is difficult. It is a story about rewarding people for heroism in the face of unimaginable horror, being told to those who have not experienced it. This performance was understated, which seemed deliberate. It would be interesting to see a more emotionally engaged version. This, buoyed along by the humour, could help differentiate the characters, deepen the connection and raise it to the next level.
For example, the anger of the Vietnam Vet who says ‘This is not a good story’ and its contrast with the chap who enlists in the Canadian Army, whose account follows on would, if less understated, have opened some very complex themes of war, culture and identity.
Too often we forgot that these were old men talking, reflecting back on their life. A point that the team may want to consider. Significantly this was done best with the veteran from New Jersey, whose recitation also contained the most humour.
In summary, this show is worth going to see. It is an outstandingly well-written piece, that demands much of the actor portraying all eight characters and which was well done. This is an engaging and interesting study in the relationship between the institution of the military and the effect of its traditions on the people doing the fighting. Something that it does without subjecting the audience to an emotional battering about the horrors of war. However, there is further work that could be done in respect of the characterisations, the emotional depth and the humour contained within the script, to raise this performance to the next level.