A Chat With James Balien

Rebecca Varidel
13th Aug 2018

Mum, Me and the I.E.D is a new play by proven creative duo, writers James Balian and Roger Vickery. In 2016, their play A Nest Of Skunks about refugees in hiding, enjoyed superb reviews and played to packed houses achieving The Depot Theatre's best box office of that year. James kindly answered some questions for Sydney Scoop about their next work.

You’re new play Mum, Me and the I.E.D is opening this week. What is the motivation behind this play?

The genesis for our work is always a strong human story that taps into an emotional current issue of our time. A Nest of Skunks was a thriller about refugees on the run. This play is about a young veteran, a former medic, who is journeying through a psychological minefield. His family and supporters, also wounded, move in and out of his consciousness as he plays unreliable narrator to his own life. As with our last play, there are many twists and turns and some big surprises. .

The director Kevin Jackson, arguably Australia’s most influential acting teacher, has used After the fall by Arthur Miller, as an inspiration for how to provide an authentic, ghost ride exposition of this state.   

The play is based on real life events? How did you research this?

Roger wrote a story inspired by a country kid who was diagnosed with PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. His mother felt obliged to lever him free of the military because his treatment was being undermined by messages, subtle and overt, that real men don’t crack up. Once he was ‘saved’ from that environment he was pitched, nerves skinned, into civilian life. The shockwaves continue to inflict him and his family.

With that ‘true’ starting point we soaked up articles, blogs and interviews that revealed the deep fracture lines in the way many psychologically damaged veterans are treated by the military and society- especially after they leave the service. Their suicide rate could be as high as two per week. The recollections of a female psychologist who served in the military for several years stood out. There was an abiding message in our research - many former veterans left felt their new lives were small and unimportant, and anxiety making.

There was an example in the sport pages of last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

We also drew on the experiences of real soldiers. One of our actors is a former army officer who has been a huge help in anchoring the military scenes in reality - and he’s made sure the cast can march.

Roger added his own experience with the military, and the black humour of the barracks and country life. Mary Ellen, the medic’s feisty, self-educated pacifist mother is modelled on country women he knows. .

Katie Pollock, our dramaturg, interrogated the writers, especially in relation to the female characters and, as a result of her work giving voice to sufferers of PTSD and related illnesses, had valuable insights into the effects of mental trauma.

What exactly is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a reaction to physical and psychological stressors that leaves the sufferers in a disturbed and erratic state. In World War One it was known as shell shock. Anger, anxiety and the need to ‘fight or flee’ are common reactions to apparently minor issues. Those suffering from PTSD regularly run the danger of reliving the stress-inducing experiences as if they were true events. The ‘triggers’ to these experiences under their feet like the IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) that are strewn across Afghanistan.

Having said that, we’ve written a drama and Kevin Jackson and his wonderful team have given it a multi-toned life. We’re not running a clinic on PTSD or offering solutions, beyond the obvious importance of counselling and constant support for sufferers. We also wanted to make it clear that humour- black, weak and incisive- is another coping strategy

When is the play set? 

Rob, our medic, is about 30. The play begins in the modern day, and moves back and forth, from his childhood, his teenage years, his time in Afghanistan and back to today when his counsellor, Melodie, a born and bred ‘army brat’, tries to reconcile her concerns for Rob with loyalty to the army system. As an unreliable narrator, what he relives may not be true. But like a nightmare or a sweet dream, it is real at the time.

And when and what was the Australian involvement in Afghanistan?

Australians have been involved in a ‘war’ in Afghanistan since 2001.  We’re still there as trainers and support staff and we may return in combat roles. It’s the longest running conflict our country has ever taken on.

Our play doesn’t focus on the how and why of this involvement. We’re interested in the treatment of men and women who’ve been damaged by war, possibly made worse by the psyche they brought to a battle zone. It’s an ancient betrayal story.

Mum, Me and the I.E.D which runs for a three week season, stars Matilda Brodie, Martin Harper, Elaine Hudson, Philippe Klaus and Joshua Shediak, with production and costume designer by Rachel Scane, lighting Martin Kinnane, sound Ben Pierpoitn, and directed by Kevin Jackson.

$5 from each of the Wednesday night performances will be gifted to recognized counselling services.