In this, the centenary year of the Battle of the Somme, Incognito Theatre’s all-male ensemble have adapted Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a blistering evocation of life in the German trenches. It’s a lyrical and at times powerful production, to which the company have added their signature physical choreography. The finished result is performed with passionate aplomb, but it also feels rather hurried, with Remarque’s work crammed into an hour at the expense of subtlety.
On the occasions it pauses for breath, the play can be quite profound: one of the soldiers returns home to parents who barely understand the terror of trench warfare. Or when the lads’ banter becomes more searching and they discuss their peacetime plans. To this, there’s the usual slew of responses: go home to family, get a girl, but one wants to remain in the army because the pay is better, or because he would have a bed. It’s a poignant if fleeting reminder that, for some, the war offered a relief from poverty. There’s also some catches of comedy—like when the lads catch and roast a pig—but by and large these fall flat, subsumed into the dizzying assault of strobe lighting, smoke and frenetic movement which accompanies the soldiers’ return to the frontline. When there, the deaths tally up, characters only briefly introduced quickly die; maybe it’s terrifying, but it’s also endless, and rapidly loses its ability to shock. The play suffers as a result.
Of course, distilling a hefty book into an hour is a difficult task, particularly when the scope of Remarque’s work is so vast. But Incognito Theatre have relied on an episodic structure, one that moves across the years and between home and the frontline, and this only adds to the feeling that play is rudderless. One soldier emerges as a central character by the end, but only by default: he is the only one left alive. And so, in place of characterisation, the play scrabbles around the trenches, pushing messages that are now commonplace: the futility of war, the war-mongering generals, and the groundswell of nihilism in a generation of broken young men.
You’ve seen it done before and done better, in the likes of War Horse or Journey’s End, and the choice to use physical theatre—the boys’ drooping bodies and pumping limbs riddled with bullets—largely fails to leaven what have become hackneyed tropes. That’s a shame, because Remarque’s novel is a magnificent piece of war fiction, deserving of a more inspired adaptation than this. The play’s overall picture may be evocative, but the detail is lacking.
All Quiet on the Western Front is playing at the Pleasance Courtyard until August 29.