Saturday 16 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – SmallWar at the Traverse, or, Inexplicably Big in Belgium

The Big in Belgium mini-strand at last year's Fringe produced a number of highlights including the film Bonanza (a fascinating slice of tiny-town Americana) and the exhausting rock-balancing Freeze! It also seems to have included BigMouth which I missed, and whose follow on piece SmallWar now arrives at the Traverse. All I can say is that if BigMouth was anything like SmallWar I cannot think why it has succeeded.

SmallWar is a one man show performed by Valentijn Dhaenens and several pre-filmed projections of himself. Based on testimonies of soldiers experiences from Atilla the Hun to the present day Dhaenens has fashioned a script which is supposed to be, according to the programme note, “an emotional reflection on the trauma and repetitiveness of war”. It left me cold and increasingly bored.

This show falls victim to the classic error of this kind of devised piece – that is Dhaenens despite much harrowing material discards character and narrative and, as with so many such similar pieces which I have suffered through at Edinburgh over the years, what he replaces them with is insufficient. This is not immediately clear at the outset. Dhaenens, dressed in nurse's uniform (I assume of World War One vintage) wheels a truncated hospital bed out from behind the projection screen. A further television screen displaying the stylised image of a soldier sits on the bed facing out to the audience. Dhaenens's script begins with him within character as the nurse reflecting on the experience of the wounded on the western front. There is some cohesion to this, and it packs some power. Unfortunately, from then on things disintegrate into a series of unrelated episodes (including a bizarre interpolation of Atilla addressing his troops) almost all of which are so depersonalised that they failed, at least for me, to have any emotional impact. Possibly this depersonalisation is the intent but I cannot think it can be productive theatre to render an audience bored by discussion of the horrors of war.

The other problem with the show is that Dhaenens even when talking to his projections rarely allows anything in the way of debate about the issues he raises. The writing makes regular assumptions about what an audience member might be thinking about the subject under discussion. I was often far from convinced that I agreed with Dhaenens's analysis, or with whoever he was at that point channeling, yet the form did not allow him to be questioned.

As with The Factory on Thursday others seemed to be getting more out of this than me. As far as I was concerned, Ute Lemper in her performance of a single song, Der Graben, at the Usher Hall following this performance achieved an infinitely more powerful commentary on the horror of war than anything in this rambling 70 minute show. Another to avoid.

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