And now for something completely different ... clever stuff and well worth seeing.
On stage in front of a packed house at the Dunstan Playhouse is a strange sight. It looks like a giant workshop with a small metal platform front of stage depicted on a large screen at the back. There are several counters with various bits and pieces on them including one topped with piles of dirt; yes, common or garden dirt. There’s a babble of voices, nothing distinguishable, and there’s a man (Arthur Sauer) standing by a table laden with state of the art technology by the look of it and familiar old fashioned horses hooves – well, some coconut shells hanging on rope. He stands, arms folded, with a slightly smug expression on his face like Hercule Poirot waiting for everyone to gather so he can reveal what he knows. The Great War begins. A babble of voices, nothing distinguishable, quietens the audience and, on the screen, four clay-coloured male heads, old, solemn, moveable heads with puzzled faces appear, look at us, at each other, and go away.
On screen we are in 1914 Europe. We know it because we see and we’re told about transport, food, Einstein, Freud, about political jockeying, alliances, broken promises, aggressive tactics, noisy guns, stirring music, and on stage, with her back to us, one of the female puppeteers in an indistinct accented voice from which we can distinguish some of the key words, leads us to the start of World War 1. Boots tramp across the earth. There’s fire, real fire on stage on one of those tables projected on to the screen – you can smell it. Trees, real branches on the counter are drooping with the heat on screen. Men are calling out, tiny soldiers on the dirt one pleading, “Shoot me somebody, please. Shoot me. For God’s sake somebody come. Shoot me please!” There are tiny crosses, denuded trees like dead twigs, a bottle of wine found in a trench which explodes to the cry of “Booby trap!” Over there on stage is a small water tank, in it a tiny toy ship and, lurking below it, a submarine all projected on screen like a 1940s movie... depth charges, a torpedo, plates floating down, a trumpet, the quick swirl of a woman’s dress and lifeboats.
On the ground, boots are having a harder time of it. The soil is getting claggy because a male puppeteer has been pouring water on that garden soil over there. There’s a wheel, barbed wire, mustard gas seeping over the terrain, a cry about gas masks. Boots walk again, each step sinking in the mud, sinking down to the drowned dead. Look, a prisoner of war camp with ghostly figures, the scrape of metal on metal, another female voice saying they were given enough to eat to just stay alive. In the trenches incredible, horrible, stultifying noise so intense that we in the audience are silently begging, “Make it stop!” How long, I wonder. 2 minutes? How could they stand it non-stop for hours, days, months? There are bodies everywhere, a withering one caught up in the cleft of branches of a leafless tree. Snow falls, all is silent. Especially the audience. There’s a bird – what an unfamiliar sound in that landscape. Heavy spring rains sink the bodies further into the mud, plants shoot up and I expected poppies but was told the poppy in Europe does not have the significance we give to it. An old cracked record plays and an old cracked foreign voice sings. It’s over.
Of the Hotel Modern theatre company, three puppeteers and the sound effects man do it all on stage in a process so defined and organised that it took them 6 months to rehearse it. They had been to see the places where these things happened so they knew the lie of the land. They made the tiny pieces they used to represent everything and devised the way to use cameras so that each action is depicted on stage with tiny figures and pieces handled with accuracy and delicacy. The women’s voices need to have been better for the narration. Their Dutch accents are a bit of a problem but the amplification of their voices often over other sounds needs to be seriously improved. The company, Herman Helle and Arthur Sauer wrote the script and he composed the music and creates the sound during the show. Pauline Kalker, Arlène Hoornweg and Menno Vroon are the puppeteers and the performance is based on testimonies, diaries and letters written by soldiers who were there.
Hotel Modern and Arthur Sauer presents
The Great War
by Herman Helle and Arthur Sauer
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | King William Road, Adelaide SA
Dates: 8 – 11 March 2018