A FAREWELL TO ARMS
The REP Studio, Birmingham, Wednesday 19th November, 2014
Oh, good: yet another First World War drama. I haven’t seen one of those for at least a week. In serious danger of combat fatigue, I approach Imitating The Dog’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, based on his own experiences. What sets this production apart is its innovative and inventive mode of presentation.
The cast arrives with flashlights. It is as though they have come to a disused hospital. As they prepare (which involves getting into costume, or setting up TV cameras) a discordant overture plays, not far removed from an orchestra tuning up. We get a sense that something is about to begin…
Laura Hopkins’s set serves as every location in the story, augmented by Simon Wainwright’s video projections on the walls and through the windows. But also the surfaces, including screens that usually provide temporary privacy for patients, become cinema screens – live feeds from the cameras are projected all over the set, giving multiple viewpoints, and providing some striking visual counterpoints. For example, with the main actors’ backs turned, their faces projected in profile on the hospital screens address each other. The effect is striking but somehow emphasises the disconnection between the characters, who are supposedly falling in love. And that sums up the production as a whole: the use of technology adds interest for the audience but also keeps us at a remove from the action.
Handsome Jude Monk McGowan is Frederic Henry, a dapper American soldier who speaks his narration directly to camera; his face his cast large on the back wall. It’s like reportage – a war correspondent delivering huge chunks of Hemingway. McGowan is good as the pent-up protagonist. Everything comes together for the sequence in which he is injured in an explosion and transported in horrific conditions on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. Here we have actors and technology working together for a powerful theatrical moment. It’s a graphic novel come to life.
In other scenes, it’s like watching a film being shot and screened at the same time. The exposure of the production’s artificialities serves to keep us at a distance so we may reflect on characters’ discourses, such as what might happen if one side just stopped fighting? But that same artificiality also keeps us apart from the emotional aspects of the play. The love story is unconvincing – I think Laura Atherton’s Catherine might play better with the clipped delivery of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Here, voices are amplified not projected. Mouths on screen don’t quite match with the words we hear, like a poorly dubbed movie. It all helps to keep us out.
Having to stay on their marks, the actors are sometimes hampered, sometimes liberated. Small moments of intimacy are splashed up the walls, but these can feel intrusive rather than revealing – we have been trained to be dispassionate observers by this point, and so the emotional climax of the tale, which comes not from the War but from their domestic lives afterwards, is not the punch in the guts it ought to be.
There’s a lot to take in. It’s a wordy play, sometimes in Italian with surtitles, and sometimes it feels over-narrated. The visuals are ever-changing, there is music playing, and words and letters swimming on and off the walls. Initially, you can lose track, but when you get used to it, there are some wonderful set pieces when everything clicks into place, and co-directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks have all the elements working in concert.
It’s an original approach but unfortunately in this case it is ultimately unsatisfying and yet Hemingway’s stark message comes across, when the cameras are switched off and Henry dismisses the other characters from the set. For what have they survived the War? Death is going to visit everyone anyway. It’s not only war that is futile but life itself.