Review: The Zero Hour

“Movies are a world of fragments”, reads a quote from Jean-Luc Godard in the programme of imitating the dog’s multimedia piece, The Zero Hour. Those familiar with Godard’s work may nod sagely at the relevance of this to the ‘jump-cut’ editing style that he pioneered in Breathless, which became a defining element of many subsequent films of the French New Wave. The idea of the film’s fragmentation also sums up The Zero Hour perfectly, as the piece consists entirely of short, related but eventually non-linear scenes that are recorded live onstage and projected onto a screen, each broken by a director (played by Song Chang) yelling “cut!”. Whether The Zero Hour actually manages to engage or move its audience with this repetitive structure, however, is debatable. For me, what began as a novel and innovative production soon became monotonous and just downright confusing.

The Zero Hour, written and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, is a staged recording of a World War Two drama. The actors and film crew are sandwiched between two screens: a backdrop onto which filmic locations are projected, and a front screen onto which the filmed action is live-streamed, with a window cut into it so that the actors may be seen as well. The production’s visual aesthetic is impressive, with faultless period costumes by Heather Bagley and arresting scenic backdrops (many of which are animated) designed by Simon Wainwright and Andrew Crofts. The show’s credits also appear onscreen alongside dates, locations and subtitles for the German and Russian dialogue, creating the effect that the audience are simultaneously on set and watching from their living rooms. This combination of live and recorded action builds an interesting perspective, demonstrating the transformation that occurs in the recording process and the differences between filmic and theatrical performance.
The flaw of this production, however, is that Quick and Brooks fail to actually craft an engaging drama within the frame. The plot is convoluted and the characters dull – everyone is either sleeping with or spying on everyone else, and the writers seem unaware of the hackneyed tropes they are employing or the clunky obviousness of their dialogue. Were it all done with a knowing wink, they could probably pass it off as satire. This isn’t helped by the endless Brief Encounter-style soundtrack of swelling strings and tense piano tinkling by Jeremy Peyton Jones, which is presumably supposed to enhance the romantic and political intrigue of the overwrought but somehow empty script. As it goes on, the piece becomes increasingly repetitive and mystifying as it experiments with alternative scenes and endings, as well as – most bafflingly – time travel. This last theme is introduced so late in the game that audiences have probably long given up trying to work out what’s going on.
Whilst it raises some stimulating ideas about the reconstruction of historical narratives in theatre and film, the piece suffers from its writer-directors trying to have it both ways: they seem determined to alienate their audience with the whole concept of the show, but at the same time expect emotional commitment to the drama within it. The company is undoubtedly highly technically skilled, and the actors do the best they can with the material, but The Zero Hour is unlikely to leave audiences ‘breathless’ with anything other than impatience.

The Zero Hour was at Warwick Arts Centre and is now touring. Visit imitating the dog’s website for dates and locations.

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!