Last week, Hotel Modern, a Dutch company, presented its show The Great War at the Adelaide Festival for the first time in Australia. The show is based on letters written by a French soldier to his mother during the war.
But The Great War is not a show like all the other shows about the war. Here, there are no actors on stage who transform into the characters. No, here the people are on stage solely to give life to the words of the soldier through the actions of miniatures filmed and then projected onto a large video screen. The Hotel Modern team is innovative. We have never seen a show like this before.
To transform potting soil into a war landscape is impressive. It’s a part of the genius of the production – to be able to make us believe that we are really looking at war moments while using every day objects.
Blowtorch fires made us believe that the forest (created from parsley) was really on fire. This added yet another level to this show – the bitter odour of the fire dispersed throughout the theatre, which added the sense of smell to those already engaged. A dirty aquarium allowed us to enter into the depths of the ocean. Icing sugar became snow and that snow melted with the help of a water sprayer which gave us rain. A dugout was made with cardboard stairs and miniatures like those you would see in a doll’s house – table, chairs, a bottle…
The flames on stage themselves are not that large, but filmed up close and projected onto the big screen are menacing. The poison gas seemed very realistic with boiling water poured onto dry ice which creates a fog which covers the ground and the soldier figurines.
A moving scene is created via mud and miniature boots worn on the fingers of the puppeteers, which gives us the impression that we are watching this soldier actually walking across the mud. This scene in which the soldier cannot help but walk across corpses, is portrayed with great realism. The dead are cut up action figures. We will never look at an action figure in the same way.
But it wasn’t just the visual side that was impressive in this performance. The man who produced the sounds on stage made us believe that we were really on the battlefield with his unique instruments using a mixture of real sounds (such as the recording of the firing of a machine gun) or created (the sound of a machine gun is also made by tapping xylophone sticks on a tin of marbles.
Despite all of the positive aspects of the production, for me, the narration was disappointing. Firstly, we don’t know why letters which were written by a man are being read on stage by a woman – is it because he sent them to his mother so we should believe that it is his mother reading them on stage? At the beginning of the show, I had the impression that the narrator was speaking to children because of her tone. Several times during the show, I pondered asking myself whether making a show with miniatures is perhaps in and of itself disrespectful even if the people who are in the show don’t intend it to be.
In summary, it was an impressive, imaginative and moving show but it would perhaps be better with a different tone in the narration.
Matilda Marseillaise was a guest of Adelaide Festival.