'After a War' review or 'All quiet on whose front?'

After a War, BAC, 27th June 2014

World War One was a very, very big thing. Every effort to commemorate seems to fall short or fail in some measure. Every gesture feels too small or every memory too impersonal. ‘After A War’, which is part of the Lift Festival, could have been a diluted and sprawling thing. It’s a collection of devised shows from international theatre-makers, curated by Lift, Tim Etchells and 14-18 NOW, which examine the war anew. It is a rough and flawed thing but it is also bright, bold and deeply personal.

The event is a bit of a theatrical pick n’ mix and some of the shows just weren’t to my taste. Andcompany&co is a German collective, made up of theatre scientists (eh?), visual artists, musicians and all that is earnest and quirky in the world of theatre. ‘Sounds like war’ is a game show cum lecture, which uses language – and a range of faux naive props and sound effects - to explore the impossible contradictions that the possibility of peace now poses. I think.

There are some clever riffs about the truths and clashes contained within language - particularly the way in which the German language warps the word war. Whilst in English we might say ‘There is War,’ the German equivalent reads ‘It gives war.’ No doubt this disjunction taps into something profound about the constant state of war we now face on a global scale – ask one of your PhD friends. I couldn’t really give a hoot.

Another show which veered off course was, unfortunately, this mini festival’s main attraction: ‘Finger, Trigger, Bullet, Gun’ from Stan’s Cafe. As with ‘Sounds Like War’, this show has been swallowed up by a tidal wave of research and lost sight of the glinting details and palpable drama that really make a piece of theatre zing.

The main attraction in ‘Finger, Trigger’ is a massive army of dominoes, numbering over nineteen thousand, which have been arranged in complex patterns about the stage space. These dominoes represent fallen soldiers, as well as the endless chain of events that led to World War One. It is a brilliant image and certainly lends the show a surface level of tension – but a domino course does not a great show make. The rest of this piece, namely the script, is very disappointing.

Whenever a show has an obvious ‘selling point’ – in this case the dominoes – the question always arises, what would this show be without its headline feature? The answer in this case is, alas, precious little. The main premise is certainly bold; the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, which kicked off WWI, was really just an alibi to invade Russia spearheaded by the Germans. It’s an intriguing idea but the scenes sound like a series of research notes patched hastily together or a manic revision session. This feeling of last minute cramming is enhanced by the fact that the actors have not mastered their lines. Despite the dynamism of that dominoes course, this is a static and tension-free show – and no amount tumbling dominoes can save it.

So far, so frustrating – but there are moments of insight in all of these shows and a gradual, building awareness of just how malleable and easily manipulated history can be. The Great War is this great and immovable thing taught earnestly in history lessons across the country – but look how much it shifts and changes, according to the whims and wills of every performer.

Congolese dancer Faustin Linyekula and Nigerian-born performance poet Inua Ellams have taken a person rather than an idea as their starting point – and their shows feel mightier and larger for it. Linyekula has an unusual and arresting presence. He’s calm but jittery, sophisticated but primal too. His inspiration is a hollow and softly haunting song from an unknown Congolese soldier trapped in a Prisoner of War Camp. This was a solider fighting for a Belgium that had colonised his country. It contains folding levels of imprisonment and sacrifice that make the mind boggle.  

Linyekula uses the song as an echo throughout the show. It filters through his body and is released through his dancing. He takes his shirt off and draws patterns over his skin. The majority of patterns he dabs in his chest, arms and face are white – but a few black squiggles also emerge. And then Linyekula moves about the stage, his limbs controlled by something ‘other’. A lot of his movements are juddery, as if his joints are trying to re-align or find a new resting place. It looks like his body no longer fits together. At one point, the music – augmented by a deeply felt performance from an on-stage guitarist – sounds like gun fire. Linyekula moves with and against those bullets, his body his own but somehow apart from him, out of his control and moving to someone else’s beat.

Finally there is that most elegant and thoughtful of performance poets, Inua Ellams. Sitting at a desk, Ellams quietly unloads the life of one African soldier – again, enlisted to fight for a side that had colonised his country. Almost every line Ellams utters begins with the word ‘because’. Because there was sun, because this young soldier’s dad had been drawn into battle, because there was pride at play, because there was a world in which the individual had become subsumed by the compromised collective....This series of ‘becauses’ scatter down, building up the picture of a world in which this young soldier’s fate has been decided before the first because was ever spoken.


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