The Danger Ensemble have explored new territory with Children of War. Unfortunately, it hasn't really worked out.
Conceived by director Steven Mitchell Wright and playwright Chris Beckey as a mash-up of Trojan War mythology and teenagers struggling through modern war, it's a production of considerable conceptual potential but infuriatingly lacklustre execution.
They haven't forsaken their strengths. As demonstrated by the complex concept, ambition remains a mainstay within The Danger Ensemble's work. More tangibly, Steven Mitchell Wright's knack for coaxing powerful performances and gorgeous, evocative imagery from an ensemble cast (see: The Hamlet Apocalypse, iWar) has not been diluted.
Unfortunately, Children of War does not play to The Danger Ensemble's strengths. It almost systematically targets their weaknesses. The production is arguably The Danger Ensemble's debut foray proper into conventional narrative and realistic drama – and their inexperience shows.
Alternating between overambitious prose ("I will sew seeds of doubt in their fields of dreams!") and a cliched approximation of contemporary teen speak ('lol', 'jk', 'emo'), Chris Beckey's script is painful. The playwright's grasp of narrative mechanics, in particular, is deficient. Too much of the work's narrative simply does not make sense.
To elaborate; The Danger Ensemble have decided to mash-up ancient Troy and contemporary society with Children of War. However, Beckey has not shown any discretion in what parts of each society he has implemented. He has merely grabbed whatever works to serve each dramatic moment – with no consideration as to whether it makes sense within the broader world of the narrative.
To list but one example; Troy's walls are supposedly cocooning our protagonists inside their city indefinitely under the guise of protection. Yet, a significant plot point hinges on an air raid. Furthermore, much of the plot hinges on a hole in that wall that both armies would seem to be aware of (which neither fix nor exploit). This is to say: a key component of the entire narrative is rendered largely irrelevant as and when it suits Beckey's needs.
The obvious response to such a criticism is to cry pedant and claim such details as irrelevant to the broader portrait. Indeed, Steven Mitchell Wright makes reference to such accusations when he claims in the program notes that the work isn't supposed to make sense. Yet, without a logically defined world in which to place themselves, Beckey's characters inevitably lose definition. If their context is malleable, their identity is transient.
With that taken in mind, Beckey's lack of narrative consideration gives rise to Children of War's crucial shortcoming – a profound lack of humanity. While ostensibly concerning the impact of war on young people, Children of War actually makes no attempt to either genuinely represent or understand its protagonists. It operates in superficialities and styles and doesn't speak to feelings or identity at all.
This is shown through the arc of each of the characters in the piece. Already thrust into one of the most dramatic experiences any human will ever experience (war), Beckey's protagonists are then each subject to a further litany of woes – molestation, rape, suicide. His sole device for generating character is to place his characters in as dramatic a circumstance as he can and explicitly outline their response in a lengthy monologue.
In other words; it's all style. There is no character or engagement. There are merely poorly rendered circumstances and token protagonists. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem for The Danger Ensemble. They are, have always been, and remain stylists par excellence. It isn't even hard to imagine an alternate, less narrative-driven Children of War where Beckey's collagist approach gives rise to a stunning and sensual piece of theatre.
However, our Children of War is driven by storytelling – and The Danger Ensemble are simply not storytellers (yet). They are to be, quite sincerely and legitimately, congratulated and encouraged for challenging themselves so comprehensively.
Laboite Indie & The Danger Ensemble
CHILDREN OF WAR
by Chris Beckey
Venue: Roundhouse Theatre | Level 5, The Works 6-8 Musk Avenue, Kelvin Grove
Dates: 14 Nov – 1 Dec, 2012
Tickets: from $20
Bookings: 07 3007 8600 | www.laboite.com.au