Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Great War theatre review (Adelaide Festival Centre)

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In 2013, Hotel Modern presented Kamp at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, a production that, in the Dutch company’s signature style, deployed sound, video, sculpture, and puppetry to tell the story of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The work, featuring a scale model of the camp and thousands of miniature figures, found new resonances in the space between the familiar but inexhaustibly shocking narratives of Nazi barbarism and the childlike presentation, proving for many, including this critic, unexpectedly affecting.

The Great War predates Kamp, having first been seen in 2001, and comes to the Adelaide Festival on the centenary of the World War I Armistice. While not able to leave the same vivid impression as Kamp – the first of the world wars being too remote in time and experience from us now, and not emotionally loaded in the way of the Holocaust – I found The Great War captivating nevertheless, if only at the level of its impeccable stagecraft.

Unlike Kamp, which was entirely without dialogue, The Great War is built around a script largely comprising first-person accounts of life in the trenches – extracts from soldiers’ testimonies, diaries, and letters, many of the latter, beginning ‘Dear Mother’, written by a single French soldier, Prospert, and performed live by actor Arlène Hoornweg. It is at once, too, both more playful and more didactic than Kamp, its opening scene – preceded by a short, humorous pastiche of talking head war documentaries – sketching the geopolitical context of the war in a whirl of live-projected maps and props, Europe’s various power blocks, for example, represented by the placing of different cigars. The history lesson descends into visual and aural chaos as Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, and the continent, and thence the world, plunges into a nightmare of industrial killing.

Spectacular effects are achieved via the simplest of means.

Just as all wars play out on both the macro and micro levels – the death counts and political and strategic manoeuvring on one hand, the plight of the individual soldier on the other – so the form of Hotel Modern’s work subsists in these disparities of scale. At the back of the stage is an enormous screen onto which are projected live feeds from various cameras, some fixed and some held by performers Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker and Arlene Hoorweg, trained on the array of miniatures that fill various tables around the stage. Helle, Kalker, and Hoorweg arrange and animate these tiny worlds – inventively fashioned from household objects like broom heads, nails, and parsley stalks – in a complex choreography that sometimes maintains the illusion created by the projections, and sometimes makes the artifice transparent, as when we watch a performer meticulously construct a muddy battlefield layered with sunken corpses.

Spectacular effects are achieved via the simplest of means. The ignited mist from WD-40 cans – the smell of which add an additional layer of viscerality to the work – stands in for the artillery bombardment of civilian populations, a cloudy fish tank is transmuted into the scene of the torpedoing of a passenger liner. The cameras also provide a soldier’s-eye view of the war, such as when we view the destruction of a township from inside a tank, and when we descend into a captured German bunker complete with scurrying rats and a booby-trapped wine bottle. Integral to these vignettes is Arthur Sauer’s immersive soundscape, which synchronises, in the manner of a radio play, both live and pre-recorded effects to the action. Its mix of the lo- and hi-fi – rainsticks and birdsong whistles rubbing shoulders with drum pads and digital samplers – as ingenious as the work’s visual world.

It’s the penultimate scene that will stay most strongly in my mind. In it, we watch, in the style of a time-lapse video, as a battlefield strewn with decomposing corpses, one draped over a bare tree, changes over the course of successive seasons of the year. Winter comes, the performers emptying shakers of flour over the bodies, then a heavy rain that seems almost to dissolve them into the desolate landscape, divesting them of their humanity but promising renewal in the shape of the grass and trees that slowly rise up around them. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking of Rupert Brooke’s The Solider:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.


The Great War is at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre until March 11

One response to “The Great War theatre review (Adelaide Festival Centre)

  1. Mr Brooker is correct in this respect: the stagecraft of Hotel Moderne is splendid and is a reminder of the diverse ways in which our stories can be told. In particular, the photo-style of the projection of their images — at once homely and chilling — is redolent of contemporary, grainy cine-footage. It is simultaneously distancing and yet involving.

    Curiously he makes no mention of the narrative structure which they did not really manage. True, the “performance” was held together by the use of recently re-discovered letters which a French soldier wrote to his mother each day, from the trenches. Accordingly there was little or no dramatic shape: 60 minutes was arguably too long for the material; yet a mere 50 minutes would have seemed too short for an evening’s theatre. The artistic questions await a truly satisfying solution, in this case.

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