When Belgian theatre director Luk Perceval decided he wanted to live
and work in Germany, his parents apparently warned him against such a
move. The Germans killed their countrymen, they said, so why would he
possibly want to live there?
This is what the director whose last work to be seen in Edinburgh was
his 2004 production of Andromache told Christina Bellingen, the
dramaturg of the Thalia Theatre, Hamburg, anyway. Bellingen worked
closely with Perceval on Front, an epic, multi-lingual spoken-word
polyphony brought to Edinburgh International Festival this week in a
co-production between the Thalia and NTGent from Belgium.
Front is based in part on All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria
Remarque's novel published in 1929, which sold more than two and a half
million copies in twenty-two different languages over eighteen months.
Remarque's book, which was filmed twice in 1930 and 1979, was also
burnt by the Nazis when they came to power. Front also draws from Under
Fire, written in 1916 by Henri Barbusse while still a soldier fighting
the war he went on to chronicle. These are put together with
contemporary accounts of life during wartime and related in a mixture
of German, French, Flemish and English.
“We are showing the war from these four different perspectives,”
Bellingen explains. “There are soldiers on either side speaking German,
French or Flemish, and we have a nurse from Great Britain getting in
touch with a wounded soldier from Belgium. But we're not playing war
onstage. You won't find guns going off or anything like that, and the
actors aren't in uniform. They wear suits like they're sitting in the
dining room of the Titanic as it sinks”
During the performance, which opened in Hamburg earlier this year,
projections of young soldiers illustrate the criss-crossing testimonies
spoken by the actors.
“It is done out of respect,” says Bellingen, “to get the voice of the
people. The actors are the voices of the unknown soldiers. You can
never really imagine what it was like to be there as a nineteen year
old boy, and here you hear all these different voices of war, so it
becomes like a symphony, like a requiem. We wanted to do it like a
concert, with variations on a theme of war and being in a war. It was
not the point to follow a character on stage from beginning to end.
It's about where we find liberation from other countries. With everyone
talking, no-one knows who they're talking about. It was the same
experience for these young men whichever country they came from.”
In this way, Front is more of a dramatic collage than a play per se.
Crucial to its creation alongside Perceval, Bellingen and Flemish
dramaturg, Steven Heene, was composer Ferdinand Forsch, a German
percussionist and sculptor who has crafted instruments out of scrap
metal sourced at junkyards. In Front, Forsch evokes the cacophony of
battle using metal sheets in a way German industrial band Einsturzende
“He is a sound artist,” Bellingen points out, “so the sound produced on
the stage from steel and metal adds another layer to the collage.”
One of the things Front's trio of adaptors discovered during their
initial researches was the lack of written-down Belgian experiences of
the great war.
“The war took place in Belgium,” she says, “but we did not find so much
Flemish war literature. It was an occupied country, and Gent is forty
miles from the front. There's a museum, and they rebuilt the trenches
there. You can see the craters in the landscape where the bombs
dropped, and where thousands of people died. It's amazing to see how
much World War One was a part of people's daily lives. There were forty
thousand dead in Belgium, but there were not so many Belgian soldiers
“World War One didn't take place in Germany, where World War Two and
the Holocaust are obviously still really important, but before this
year, World War One wasn't so much forgotten as never really talked
about. People do remember it, and I think that wherever you are, we
have a real duty to remember the horrors of World War One.”
The response to Front since it premiered in Hamburg in March of this
year has been suitably humbled.
“I think people were really touched,” says Bellingen. “Sometimes you
can be playing to a thousand people, and it doesn't matter what is
going on onstage, there is always someone coughing, but when we first
did Front, it was really like being in church.”
While there is a clear sensitivity in Germany about any work of art
that deals with war, there is no sense in Front of Perceval's vision
falling down on one side or the other.
“It is about the horror of war, says Bellingen. “In our play, there is
no talking about good or bad sides. It is about young men who spent
eighteen months in the mud, and how wars are still going on. You can
never say that enough.”
Front, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 22-26, 7-10.30pm
The Herald, August 20th 2014