4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre
WHAT ARE THEY staring at, the 11-strong cast of Luk Perceval’s great two-hour meditation on the horror of the First World War? Ranged along the front of stage, empty eyes fixed on the audience, each holding a microphone and an old-fashioned desk-lamp that casts an eerie glow upward onto the face, they nonetheless seem to be looking far beyond us – out over the battlefield, perhaps, or more likely into the void, the great darkness that waits for them, as they go to towards their deaths.
Staged by Thalia Theater of Hamburg as part of this year’s 1914 centenary, Perceval’s latest work is a formidably static piece, by normal theatrical standards. Essentially, it presents a collage of texts about the First World War, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, and other contemporary sources. And although the performers each develop strong individual characters, and sometimes leave their posts at the front of the stage to strip off their greatcoats, to whirl like dervishes caught up in some maelstrom of horror, or to climb angel-like up ladders and assist musician-composer Ferdinand Forsch in creating a thundering, singing hell of noise from the great vibrating metal sheets that form part of the set, they always return, in the end, to that horror-struck contemplation of the dark, and to the texts – murmured or shouted – that give us some sense of that nightmare battlefield.
What distinguishes Perceval’s evocation of the war, though, is not only its vivid sense of horror, and the unforgettable maturity, integrity and intensity of his company’s performance, but the rich layers of cultural resonance built into its fierce intermingling of language and sound, movement and visual images. Performed in German, French, Flemish and English, this show without borders captures what another writer described as the wild jazz of the noise that filled the trenches; the breaking of sounds, the wailing distortion of the voice, and the fragmenting and shattering of ideas of the human body, that was to change European culture for ever, and utterly transform the language of contemporary art and music. For as this essential piece of theatre makes clear, the impact of this war lay not only in the loss of the four million who died; but in the fact that the survivors had to live on with that image of hell in their minds, into a 20th century reshaped by a knowledge of chaos and horror which, once gained, could never be unlearned.