In the unrelenting darkness of the Traverse theatre, writer and performer Valentijn Dhaenens brings us face to face with the fear, trauma and, above all, futility of war. Sequel to politically charged BigMouth, SmallWar by SKaGeN theatre company reveals the true reality behind the words that fall almost flippantly from the mouths of politicians. When the powers that be declare war, it isn’t they who have to deal with the consequences. Based on the testimonies of soldiers, nurses and families affected by war from the battle of the Catalaunian Plains to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, SmallWar is a harrowing insight into the personal consequences of the great killing machine.
A wounded soldier lies unable to move or communicate in the darkness. Through the innovative use of video and sound, we are able to hear his thoughts. Dhaenens manages to conduct entire conversations with multiple versions of himself, discussing glory, power, fear, death; the way war steals your humanity, how it tears lovers and families apart, how the lasting effects of PTSD in soldiers were largely ignored and often more disturbing than the fighting itself. He also plays the nurse, who holds the show together and offers a brief insight into women’s roles in and experiences of war.
When the real-life Dhaenens speaks, he is captivating, and the use of pre-recorded material is especially effective in illustrating modern warfare as industrialised killing, as well as instrumental in creating the haunting harmonies that intersperse the show and add an extra dimension to the atmosphere. But SmallWar’s heavy reliance on projections and voiceovers takes away a lot of immediacy.
Reminiscent of the quadruple amputee soldier in Johnny Got His Gun – the final utterance is in fact a quotation from the film – SmallWar is claustrophobic, tragic and real. The last line of Dhaenens’ programme notes, “To whisper in fear as not to scream for blood”, rings true: SmallWar is not an especially vivid representation of war, but it is fraught with pain and bitterness, which can be more potent than brute force.
SmallWar plays at Traverse until 24 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information and tickets see the Edinburgh Fringe website.