Review: A Farewell to Arms

Imitating the Dog – an ambitious theatre company – were to act as squatters rather than tidy tenants, with Hemingway being left to play a landlord forced into dismay

Showing at the old market in Brighton, the play opens with the Michel de Certeau quote, “reading makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment”, whilst actors break onto the set with a crash. What was clear from then on, was that this entrance was symbolic of the breaking and entering of the rented apartment in question, in which Imitating the Dog – an ambitious theatre company – were to act as squatters rather than tidy tenants, with Hemingway being left to play a landlord forced into dismay.

The production melds cinema and live dramatic practice in a way that has rarely been attempted and never this successfully

 Imitating the Dog’s vision of A Farewell to Arms is a tour de force of experimental theatre. The experimentation does not lie in the strange and obscure but in the distinctly familiar. Cameras move fluidly across the stage and the action is projected, in real time, upon the beautifully designed set (Laura Hopkins). The production melds cinema and live dramatic practice in a way that has rarely been attempted and never this successfully.

The audience is acutely aware of the sheer volume of mediums through which the story is regaled. The acting is filtered through the voyeurism of an intrusive close up, the wide shot of grand cinematic scale and the frankly brilliant special effects, all within the confines of a relatively small stage. The ‘ambient’ soundtrack is present throughout, lights flare and the projections dance across the walls constantly. Sensory deprivation – it is not.

What all this is wrapped in is the inescapable facet that is the text, which the performance draws almost entirely from. It is displayed, huge and domineering, above the heads of the actors and serves the dual purpose of alluding to the interwoven nature of the medium, and offers translations of the French and Italian lacing the text; something non-Italian speakers such as ourselves were grateful for.

More poignantly the subtitles serve to wrap another shroud around the human performance and create yet another level of separation between audience and the central romance. The text is a beautiful and enveloping one and we can’t help but feel shut out from what should hold real emotional clout by the lenses, production and the requirement to constantly shift our gaze to the artifice of the projections.

The performances, although tight and convincing, seem almost a necessary afterthought in the wake of the technological aspirations of the directors (Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks). This is the issue with an experiment of this nature. Whilst the spectacle is undeniable, it misses the emotional pertinence a more stripped back and raw production would hold.

If there was a heart at the center of that maelstrom of camera work, noise and barricading text, it was hard to penetrate

Nor does it strike notes of awe on the scale one feels a less romantically focalized source material would offer. The theatre shudders under the scenes of war and conflict, but they are given so little credence in the play – even less so in the novel – and it shows. The story is one of romance and isolation. What Hemmingway described as a ‘beautiful front’ may have been a better way to portray the play. The heavy and intrusive production elements made it difficult to recognize the beauty the story holds- if there was a heart at the center of that maelstrom of camera work, noise and barricading text, it was hard to penetrate – and so our investment in the emotions of the characters were stunted.

Early forays into these new ways of exploring what is possible will always be difficult to pin down. The production seems to unravel in its use of so many mediums and one wonders whether a more concentrated effort could sustain the purity of the source material and still push the envelope in terms of a melding of drama and cinema. What must be recognized though, is that Imitating the Dog are effectively without peers in the sphere they operate in. Sensory awe succeeds as a seductive, cinematic tool, but is unfortunately a slightly empty ordeal and takes away a whole lot of heart from the acting. Not once did I find myself as gripped by the beauty of the text or the theatrics, as I was by the technological fanfare.

 

Reviewers – Joe Cummins & Freddy Englender (Brighton Division)

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