The enormous backdrop the colour of beaten gun metal that dominates the stage like a doom ridden cathedral creates a tremendous sense of awed anticipation. A series of music stands front the stage and gradually ten actors take their place behind them with the eleventh on top of one large ladder, all dressed for an informal orchestral concert. A ‘First Post’ is sounded on a peculiar wind instrument that could have made from a gas pipe whose mouth opens to a trumpet.
This multilingual text is sourced in the main from the great anti -war novel All Quiet on the Western Front by German writer Erich Maria Remarque and Under Fire: the Story of a Squad by French novelist and political activist Henri Barbusse. It is performed by a group of actors who among them speak the text in Flemish, French, German and English as they give voice to soldiers in the ranks whose common bond is anguish and pain.
In a similar vein, the factual book by a group of European historians, Marc Ferro, Malcolm Brown, Remy Cazals and Olaf Mueller, based on primary sources that forms Meeting in No Man’s Land and inspired the multinational and multilingual film Joyeux Noël about the famous Christmas truce at part of the Front. In Front, the phenomenon of the football game that became the symbol for the all too brief truce is shown dramatically yet unsensationally, pointing up its relative significance against the colossal horrors that followed.
From the gung-ho teacher Kantorek (Burghart Klaussner) who rallied schoolboys with shoulders too narrow to fit men’s uniforms to serve; to young Emiel Seghers (Oscar van Rompay) who has followed his elder brothers to war leaving his mother (Katelijne Verbeke) to survive by trading with the enemy; to the English nurse (Oana Solomon) who is at the front after losing her fiancé and cares for the likes of Belgian Corporal Van Outryve (Peter Seynnaeve); to the famer’s boy who witnesses the death of horses with his own personal agony, there is a choir of disparate voices with their own tragic tale.
The music stand lights give an eerie glow to the actors’ faces as they deliver their firing squad of words, all captioned in English above. Images of faces of WW1 soldiers are projected on to the partly broken wall between the dark rolling clouds that symbolise war so well. Screeching and grinding metal stand for sounds of death and the hellish racket of metal sheets hung from scaffolding shatter the ears, yet can only be an echo of what was actually heard.
In this magnificent display of discordant unity, we see civilians in disguise witness what can be the miracle and often the horror of survival while in tandem trying to nurture ordinary human hopes.
Katelijne Verbeke is a symbolic mother or angel mercifully closing the eyes of the dead then switching off the lights one by one, echoing British Foreign Secretary, Edward Gray’s telling remark that “The lamps are going out all over Europe…”
Front is a dramatic cathedral to unnecessary pain, misery and death. Utterly unforgettable and unmissable.
22 - 26 August, 7.00pm