Centred around a young group of friends as they deal with the aftereffects of war, Tarek “Taz” Skylar and Ross Berkeley Simpson’s Warheads is an eye-opening exploration of the lasting impact warfare can have on people, even long after having returned to the safety of home.
Read our Q&A to discover how this emotional piece of theatre came together.
Warheads is centred around a group of friends and how they each experience the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after two of them, Weppler and Morlock, return from war. What made you want to tell this story?
Taz: One of my childhood friends was a Spanish infantryman. He was a larger-than-life character who inspired me to write something about young soldiers. It was evident to me that the goal was never to do a biographical piece, as that would have entailed writing a three-hour verbatim play in Spanish. From the get-go, I wanted to capture the essence of my close friend and put it into a narrative structure that would highlight the struggles that young men in the armed forces go through. Because I was putting on the play in London, I thought it could be an interesting mix to combine that essence with urban London youth culture. And the result was Warheads.
Ross: I have no experience of the army nor urban London youth culture and so, as a writer, I found it quite thrilling to be immersed in a world that I didn’t know. My normal rule of thumb is to ‘write what you know’ – but knowing that Taz had the back-up knowledge of this world meant I could jump in, take it somewhere, and the piece would still retain its authenticity. It was this rare chance to write out of my comfort zone (and Taz’s enthusiasm for the piece) that made me want to be involved.
How did the collaborative writing process work?
Ross: We have to mention Laura Rollins here.
Ross: Laura Rollins, the actor, is a good friend of mine. She introduced us.
Taz: Like many things with this show, angels were just watching over me and dropped the perfect collaborators from the sky. I had written a fair few drafts of the play and done read-throughs, but I’d never written anything before and was having some trouble with the structure for it. And coincidentally, I had just done a monologue slam in Birmingham, where Laura Rollins was a judge for it. We shared the same acting agent at the time.
Laura and I got chatting and I told her I was a writer and that I’d written a play and some pilots. We started to work together (Laura and I) on something else, which never really came to fruition, but in the interim, she introduced me to her friend Ross. She sent me a scene he’d written and I loved his writing. I thought we shared a very similar sensibility and we loosely started chatting about collaborating on something. I was still working on Warheads in the background at this point. I’d done workshops of it, devising sessions with actors read-throughs, you name it… I was hellbent on getting this play to where it needed to be. And one day I just thought I’d send it to Ross to have a look at it.
Ross: I read the original version of the play and my first thought was ‘this doesn’t need me’. In fact, I told Taz that I wouldn’t work on it because there was already a good play there. But then, in a video call, Taz explained exactly why he wasn’t happy: his intention had been to write something about the specific mental effects on the soldiers and this was mostly still missing, and he wasn’t happy with the plot construction.
I agreed to work on a new plot and also to do the research on PTSD and find a way to incorporate this more explicitly. Once I’d learned more about what the symptoms are (night terrors, paranoia etc) a new structure for the piece became clear. This started by introducing the therapist character, which then changed the way the play dealt with time and space, making the scenes choppier in both feel and time.
Taz: CLICK. I learnt so much from seeing the changes he’d made to the play. Then the play went into rehearsals and it changed another MILLION TIMES OVER, pushing the new structure further and further until the structure almost became a character in and of itself. We did a week of read-throughs with the original cast, led by our director, Toby Clarke. Hearing it out loud would shine light on what was still weak, which characters needed to be rounded off. The play still went on unnecessary tangents that needed cutting. The lead character’s arc needed to be rethought. The secondary characters needed stronger arcs. It needed light hearted moments to counterbalance the darkness that permeates the second half. So every day after the read-throughs, I would go home and work on new scenes to try out the next day. Funny scenes. Happy scenes. Bouncy scenes. And slot them in to the non-linear structure to make sure the play could justify its latter darkness with upfront humour. Then it changed even more during rehearsals. And finally, after opening night at the Bernie Grant Arts centre, Ross came to see the play and WE FINALLY MET IN PERSON.
Ross: Yup! We literally met for the first time on opening night. Before that it was a couple of video calls, phone calls and about 400 emails. And it wasn’t even lockdown.
Taz: That meeting was such an emotional moment because this play meant so much to me. He was so supportive and positive about what he’d seen on stage. He’d been in the dark about the play through the read-through and rehearsal stages, where lots of changes continued happening, and his trust never wavered a single bit.
Ross: Well, I wasn’t in the rehearsals so it would have been a bit rich to say ‘why didn’t you use my line there?’ Besides, the changes didn’t interfere with my plot work or the PTSD work I put through it, so to me the changes were entirely positive. I think Taz, the actors, director Toby Clarke and the sound designer did an amazing job making the script come to life.
Taz: This is RARE for writing partners. Too many times writing partners spend half their time arguing about contracts and artistic differences, but between Ross and I, none of that seemed to matter. We complemented each other perfectly and have never even argued once (fingers crossed it stays that way). And I think that’s because we were just very upfront with each other. From the get go, Ross just said…
Ross: “I’ll do a pass on the script… if you like it and use it, we share the credit, if you don’t like it, then just be honest, we part ways and happy days… we’ll find something else to work on.” And Taz said…
Taz: “That sounds fair to me. All I ask is that if ever
we disagree on something, I retain the right to break the tie.” He said…
Taz: And I think that’s why we worked so well. Even now with other things I send his way or he sends my way, we act exactly the same. Say what we want or think upfront. Exchange an email detailing what we spoke about so that it’s written down somewhere and go from there.
Ross: It was a thrilling experience as a writer and I’ll be forever grateful to both Taz – for trusting me to move things around in the world he’d envisioned – and to Laura, for introducing us.
During the play, the two characters who aren’t in the armed forces, Tembe and Tena, are rehearsing lines for Tena’s performance in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. What’s the significance of this play in particular?
Taz: First of all, Coriolanus is my favourite Shakespeare play. And second of all, I think it’s symbolic of many things in Warheads. Both of the lead characters are affected by war in two very different ways, and they oscillate between enemies and allies, eventually leading to the savage demise of one of them. A lot of the Coriolanus sensibilities were influential for the feel of the piece, although they may be incredibly subtle.
Can you talk a bit about the style of dialogue used throughout the piece and why it feels right for both the story and the characters?
Taz: Ever since I was little, I would rather listen to dialogue than music. Dialogue is a rhythmical, musical and poetic thing which, to me, is the difference between a great piece and a mediocre piece. So hopefully that’s evident. The lexicon however, if we’re referring to the “Bruv’s”, the “Init’s” and the “fam’s”, that was born out of me wanting to use urban, London youth culture in a story that didn’t involve drugs or gangs, because that’s all that language usually gets associated with. It was a way to connect to the audience that I wanted it to connect to, because they would feel like they knew the people on that stage.
Ross: When I was writing new dialogue I knew that Taz would have to go over it to make it sound more genuine for these characters. I don’t think I’ve ever said “fam” in my life. I just made sure that the dialogue that was needed for my plot strands was included and knew that he’d fix any inconsistencies. There were two exceptions: the therapist – whose voice I knew well, and Tembe, who felt somehow a lot like me. I thought it was hilarious when Tembe later developed into a gay character (without my input) and wondered whether some of my words had something to do with that shift.
Throughout the show, there are moments where the past and present overlap, playing with the audience’s perception of reality. Do you have any advice of how to approach this on stage?
Taz: Anchor the play with clarity to begin with, before you start messing with the audience. Try to keep it simple and then trust the audience.
So, the “anchor the play with clarity” bit refers to the fact that you need to make the audience feel safe and grounded before you start pulling the rug. If the play starts and we don’t know where we are to begin with, the effect will be lost when things actually do start to merge and muddle.
‘’Keep it simple’’, relates to the fact that since it can be innately confusing from the get-go, so the director and actors should do everything in their power to keep everything else as simple and clear as can be. The staging moves quickly from one place to another, so how that is going to be re-arranged should remain as logical as possible.
The other thing is the transition itself, where so much of a story can be told through physical theatre in the actual process of rearranging the set.
Now, when things do start to purposely get confusing, trust that you’ve built a clear enough foundation for the audience to go on the bumpy ride that the latter half of the piece takes them on.
The play offers a platform to openly discuss PTSD. More generally, is mental health a topic that you hope to explore through future projects?
Taz: Exploring mental health in young people — from a first-person perspective — in a way that my mum can enjoy, is pretty much the remit of everything I want to write.
Ross: We have already worked on a few things together since Warheads (who knows if we will get them out there) and mental health is at the heart of those pieces too. This may sound strange but I think, when you’re writing for any character, mental health is always something that goes into any piece.
If everyone in your script was doing OK and not dealing with anything in their lives then it would be a pretty boring script! Of course this doesn’t have to be as extreme as how we discuss PTSD in Warheads, but it is always there. I’ve recently finished writing a gay rights play which deals with the mental torture of having to stay in the closet (write what you know!), and whilst I wouldn’t say the character was clinically depressed, it definitely has an effect on the character’s mental health, so it was still a consideration. But of course you have to treat mental health very carefully and do your research. There are a few reviews online from audience members with PTSD who watched Warheads at Park Theatre, and they were very complimentary with how we handled it, and how accurate and realistic it was. We are so proud that the play was nominated for an Olivier — I am still over the moon! — but the fact that those sufferers said we nailed the depiction of PTSD is my proudest moment in the Warheads experience.
Taz: Ross and I have a great relationship and we will definitely write something together again. It may be about mental health or it may not. But as a topic it’s definitely something very close to my heart.