What would it look like if you put a go-pro in the guts of the trenches? Probably something like this. In this ceaselessly inventive live animation performance, Dutch theatre ensemble Hotel Modern (Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker, Arlène Hoornwg) and composer Arthur Sauer use a miniature film set to evoke the massive destruction of trench warfare in the First World War. But the impact of what could be a devastating show is lessened by a disappointing script.
Now in its final week, the biennial London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) has lit up the city with a varied programme of international performance work. Much of the final week of the festival is dedicated to memories from the First World War, with The Great War marking the beginning of LIFT2014’s After A War programme, a series of events and performances co-curated with Tim Etchells and 14-18 NOW.
Perceptions of The Great War have largely been shaped by artists of the time; with poets, painters and photographers, many of whom served, creating work of profound importance and continued longevity. Now, 100 years later, Hotel Modern and Arthur Sauer attempt to make the experience of war tangible using household paraphernalia, potting soil and parsley to recreate the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front. Armed with small hand-held cameras the performers set about telling the story of the trenches, POV, through the eyes of the fighting soldiers, with the footage relayed in real time on a large screen at the back of the stage.
This is a show where every moment is created with the delicate precision of a practised photographer. A tank of what looks like used washing up water becomes the murky depths of a distant ocean, the flickering embers of a sparkler become the rain of enemy artillery. The result is a toy box of endless ingenuity, with Hotel Modern shunning literalism in favour of an Aardman Animations aesthetic. Foley artist and composer Arthur Sauer provides a live soundtrack to the film, using everything from keyboards and clappers to corrugated iron to make the sound of horses’ hooves and exploding hand grenades.
Having the mechanics of the performance exposed in this way engenders a curious Verfremdungseffek, with the toy soldiers and plastic submarines constantly reminding the viewer of the process of re-enactment. This plants a beguiling critical distance between the appalling violence of the images and the evident artifice of the endeavour.
Any sense of critical distance is sorely lacking in the moments of spoken testimony and letters littered throughout The Great War. Despite their apparent authenticity, the sentiment feels distant and detracts from the blazing tangibility of the rest of the experience. Whether this is an issue with translation I’m not sure, but it’s a reminder that The Great War is a many-times-told story elevated by stunning sound and visuals.
The Great War is running at Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Southbank Centre until 26 June. For tickets and further information go to the Southbank Centre website. Photo by Joost van den Broek.