Adelaide Festival Review: The Great War

Photo Credit: Joost van den Broek

The Great War

Who: Hotel Modern

When: 8-11 March 2018

Where: Dunstan Playhouse

Hotel Modern’s ‘The Great War’ is a stylised retelling of the First World War, as recorded through the letters and diaries of veterans. Interestingly, the premise was arrived at indirectly through the curiosity of artist, and member of Hotel Modern Herman Helle. Through military service Helle was both disturbed and fascinated by the thrill he experienced firing a rifle; as such, the show plays of the strengths of being morbidly fascinated by the subject matter, while maintaining a critical distance from it.

The staging of the show reinforces this, almost resembling an operating theatre in a display of complicated but precise instruments. The puppeteers work in complete synchronicity and are visible to the audience; playing out a scene on the set, which is transmitted to the audience via a camera projection with live sound effects and narration while the next scene is prepared in the background. The process worked as a way of tying together the vignettes without narrative; equal parts Brecht and Koolhaas depending on your preferred reference.

The point of difference to the Great War is that it focuses on, and therefore seems to say something universal about the sensory experience of war. The sound effects grounded the show with their surprising realism; highlights included the constant squelching of boots in trenches and the sound of a rusted gate well paired with the depravity in the opaque fields of a POW camp. An occasional motion blur through quick flicks of the camera provided an almost photorealistic depiction of running through No Man’s Land.

The wonky puppets themselves added a layer of absurdity to the production. These moments included a soldier literally being caught with his pants down, the homely exchange of letters between a soldier and his family, seemingly unfazed by increasingly terrifying theatres of war; and perhaps there was no better emotional space to capture the aftermath of a soldier melted by a chemical weapon trap left behind by his dead adversaries. These moments were amazing, if true and the production seemed designed to highlight this.

In a poetic fashion the audience was invited afterwards to get on stage and have a closer look at the staging which drove home, on two different levels that The Great War was an exercise in highlighting the truths of history through artifice.

4/5 stars

Tin Do

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