It is often feared by theatregoers and bookworms alike that, when a classic novel is adapted for the stage, the performance may lose sight of the original ingenuity of the text. This danger is averted entirely by Imitating the Dog which, by projecting the writing all over every visible surface, ensures that the audience is literally immersed in the layered prose of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. You couldn’t lose sight of it if you tried.
This is the first time that A Farewell to Arms has been adapted for the theatre in the UK since Hemingway penned it in 1929. The company climbs inside it (literally, as they break through a wall) and opens it up to the audience in a new way. With the help of some nifty camera work and subtitles, Imitating the Dog successfully delivers the powerful first-hand account of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver for the Italian army during the First World War.
For a cast of six, the multitude of small but important and interesting personalities in the play is always going to be a challenge, but Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, the adaptors and directors of the play, use multirole to their full advantage and do it very well. Only Laura Atherton (Catherine) and Jude Monk McGowan (Frederic) remain in the same character throughout. The other four actors (Joshua Johnson, Morven Macbeth, Matt Prendergas and Marco Rossi) form a sort of Greek chorus, allowing them to jump in and out of the action. This means that they can both contribute to moving the story along by playing one of the smaller roles, and step away and narrate and judge the action on stage.
Snippets and sections of Hemingway’s novel are splashed across the stage from the moment the performance begins. This, combined with the stunning soundscapes by Steven Jackson, atmospheric music by Jeremy Peyton-Jones, sweeping lighting by Andrew Crofts and intricate video designs by Simon Wainwright, makes for an engulfing performance which at times leaves the audience wondering what to focus on. There are so many clever details that deserve attention but the play is of such a fast pace that devoting time to each one proves impossible. The set itself, designed by Laura Hopkins, is something that demanded to be recognised. It is quite minimal and can be easily manoeuvred and adapted by the actors on stage, but it is the way that it is deliberately left with an unfinished aesthetic that I find interesting. Areas of the wings are visible and, combined with the cameras (which remain onstage at all times), give the impression of a film set and reinforce the idea of the novel being examined and taken apart. Rather than aiming to present the novel in its full and traditional form, the company seem to be displaying the discoveries of an ongoing investigation.
None of the actors shy away from the task at hand and do not for one moment seem daunted by the momentum of the piece. Jude Monk McGowan was a convincing and relatable Frederic, who the audience willed to be happy. Laura Atherton played a beautifully realised and unstable Catherine who at times was unnerving in her intensity but overall very endearing and vulnerable. Morven Macbeth portrayed a fiery Helen Furguson, a friend of Catherine’s, and added an unexpected intensity to some sections of the play. Johnson was a wonderfully gentle priest who offered quiet to an otherwise busy production and whose words I hung onto. The moments between him and McGowan were powerful and the music accentuated the separation of these scenes from the rest of the play, and the priest from the rest of the characters. Rossi was a very wise, knowing and tired Major, and Prendergas’s boyish and playful (and at times movingly desperate) portrayal of Rinaldi was stand-out. There were moments when I wished for more time to think through and digest the characters and text and almost willed the performance to slow down. It took me a while to realise that if it weren’t for the energy and speed of the production as a whole I may never have appreciated the value of an underplayed scene or how precious a simple interaction between two characters can be.
A Farewell to Arms is playing The Dukes, Lancaster until the 25 October before continuing its UK tour followed by a tour in Italy. For more information see the Imitating the Dog website. Photo by Ed Waring