“The First World War was a horror of gas, industrialized slaughter fear and appalling human suffering.” wrote Nick Harkaway in 2012, and they were correct in every respect. Millions dead, empires lost, and the groundwork laid for the rise of fascism less than twenty years later. And for what? Why did this ‘war to end all wars’ happen? That is the question on the minds of the young men at the heart of Incognito Theatre Company’s production of All Quiet on the Western Front at the Vault Festival.
Sitting in a schoolroom in a small town in Germany, the teacher, Professor Kantorek is exhorting his class of teenage boys to rise as one, and volunteer for the Kaiser’s army. Stirred by a feeling of patriotism, five of them (Angus Castle-Doughty, Charlie Macvicar, Daniel Whitlam, George John and Joshua Eldridge-Smith) along with the rest of their class do so. After basic training, under the command of Corporal Himmelstoss, an overbearing bully who uses his stripes to torment those below him, the boys are shipped off to the Western Front with the promise it will all be over by Christmas.
Based on WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 book “Westen nichts Neues, lit” (Nothing New In the West), Incognito TC have distilled the story of Paul Bäumer and his school friends into a one-act, hour-long production of true brilliance. Director: Roberta Zuric has the boys tell the story through a combination of dialogue, direct to audience speech and movement – with choreography by Zac Nemorin. Unfortunately, I do not have a name for the Lighting Designer, but they and Sound Designer Oscar Macguire should be applauded for their work enhancing the depiction of war and life in the trenches.
There are battles, death and destruction but there are also wonderfully normal moments, such as the time when the fixer of the group, Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, manages to scavenge a diner treat for them, only for the British to go and ruin things with a round of artillery shells. And that peaceful time when the guys are using the lavatory together, chatting away unselfconsciously, whilst sitting doing what comes naturally, their trousers around their ankles, which really re-awakened memories of the camaraderie that was part of my life in the RAF.
What the story does tell you is the way people are changed by war. At one point, Paul has some leave and goes home and finds that he no longer fits in with a group of civilians who are pretty much unaffected by the action going on a few hundred miles away from them. Indeed, there is a marvellous moment when, after travelling for two days from the trenches, a weary Paul fails to salute a Major for whom the niceties of military etiquette are the only thing that matters. Even worse, is the discussion when the boys have real trouble imagining what life will be like when the war is over. As Paul says, “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”
One of the touches I really liked in this thoughtful and well-produced show was that the cast did not put on German accents and wore very English battle dress uniforms. This really, for me, highlighted the fact that whether they were called Kropp, or Westhus or Müller and whether they wore a German, English or French uniform these were all young men caught up in a war they were never consulted on and, in reality, they had little knowledge about. The only thing all of the soldiers knew was that their side was in the right – the basis for conflict throughout the centuries.
It would be far too easy to identify All Quiet on the Western Front as a condemnation of war as a whole. And, in my opinion, very naive to do so. There are times when war is justified as there are times when they are not as well and this play deals with one specific war, not the entirety of wars throughout history. As a piece of theatre, it is a wonderful example of how everything can come together to produce a show that is just right. The story is fascinating, the cast absolutely brilliant in the many roles they play, the direction, light and sound spot on and the whole production is a compelling and gripping story of regular people being caught up in something bigger than they are and paying the ultimate price for other people’s vanity.
Review by Terry Eastham
“We were eighteen years old, and just learning to love the world and being in it, and then we had to shoot it to bits.”
Following an international tour, the multi-award nominated and award-winning Incognito Theatre Company return to VAULT Festival with their critically celebrated adaptation of Erich Remarque’s tale, exposing the harrowing reality of trench warfare.
Told through the eyes of five classmates, this adaptation is gripping and unyielding in its treatment of the visceral brutality of war, an honesty that lends itself to Incognito Theatre’s unapologetically explosive physical style. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ focuses on the harsh physical reality of this violent world from the perspective of the German forces, intercut with the vulnerability of human experience. An exploration of raw humanity and the power of brotherhood in the face of total bleakness, Incognito’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ exposes the personal sacrifices that were made for the sake of the Great War.
Director: Roberta Zuric,
Choreographer: Zac Nemorin
Producer: Hannah Wisher
All Quiet on the Western Front
3 – 8 Mar 2020