Thursday, March 5, 2015

SmallWar at the 2015 Adelaide Festival

SmallWar. Australian Premiere

Written and performed by Valentijn Dhaenens. Video, set and sound design Jeroen Wuyts. Produced and presented by SKaGeN, Richard Jordan Productions and the Theatre Royal Plymouth in co-production with Stuk and De Tijid. The Space. Adelaide Festival Centre    March 2-4 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Valentijn Dhaenens

A limbless body lies swathed in a blanket on a hospital bed. Beside him a World War 1 nurse (Valentijn Dhaenens) stands gently singing “There was a boy, a very special boy”. The haunting voiceover of the wounded soldier recounts the character of war against the droning sound of a ghostly hum. It is the mournful lament of the victims of war across the millennia. Profoundly moving in its sentiments, deeply disturbing in its truths and startlingly simple in its honest logic, SmallWar in the intimate Space at the Adelaide Festival Centre casts new light on the impact of war on the individual. Drawn from accounts of soldiers, doctors, nurses and officers who served in wars from Attila the Hun to Afghanistan, SmallWar lends voice to the 120,000 victims of conflict between 1914 and 2014. It is a frightening statistic that glares at us from the large projection screen across the stage.

We have become accustomed to the horrors of war. Nightly, the hideous images of current conflicts and atrocities flash through our living rooms. In this country’s centenary commemorations we are reminded of the appalling horrors and lauded glories of Gallipoli and the Western Front. We recognize the incongruity of human conflict, its devastating impact on nations, its horrendous loss of life in the countless rows of crosses, and, tragically, its seeming inevitability.
Valentijn Dhaenens in SmallWar. Photo by Inge Lauwers

SmallWar zooms in on the shattered remains of the individual soldier. With the amazing use of digital technology, images of the motionless patient emerge from the bed to appear in hospital garb behind the larger screen. Dhaenens depicts the various facets of the soldier, at times interacting with himself as the nurse, the girlfriend or the mother of the wounded soldier. Reality and illusion fuse in a digital world of experience. Each image presents moments in a soldier’s life, before the war, during the war and ultimately as a victim of combat fatigue, shell shock or post-traumatic stress syndrome. A rhetorical debate between the images and the nurse raises questions, challenges beliefs, attacks motives and layers the arguments with undeniable cynicism.

Ultimately we are left with an appreciation, not only of the futility of war. that has never been in doubt, but also more poignantly, more profoundly and more fearfully the reality of the destruction of life, of opportunity, of dreams and aspirations and the possibilities denied by the brutal consequences of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dhaenens’ inhabiting of the many characters and personas offers a tour de force performance, persuasive in its truth, powerful in its argument and hypnotic in its conviction. Finally, like the wounded soldier, we are confined to a state of helplessness. The soldier’s recorded voice cries out through the darkened theatre, “If I had arms, I could kill myself. If I had legs I could run away. If I had a voice I could have a conversation with myself.” Dhaenens reminds us that there are many reasons that young men will go to war. There can be no reason why it is right and sweet to die for one’s country.

Dhaenen’s brilliantly orchestrated fusion of digitally realized and real performance heightens our sensibilities, evokes more directly our emotions and brings us to a greater understanding of the frightening inevitability of war and its consequences. Original, imaginative and profoundly thought-provoking, SmallWars is theatre that will continue to question and debate the necessity or otherwise of war long after you have left the theatre.