Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Farewell To Arms @ The Lowry, 13.11.14

What's that on the stage: is it a film? Is it a play? No, it's A Farewell To Arms, the latest production from mixed-media masters Imitating The Dog. An adaptation of Hemingway's breakthrough novel, the show stirs radio-style narration, cinematic expansiveness and straight up drama together to create a new theatrical concoction.

Set in World War One the play tells the tale of Frederic Henry (Jude Monk McGowan), an American volunteer in the Italian Ambulance service. After being blown up by a shell Henry finds himself in hospital receiving treatment from English Nurse Catherine Barkley (Laura Atherton) and as he heals their love for one another grows. Unfortunately for them the cynicism, hurt and pain of the war is never far away, and eventually the relationship becomes just another casualty of it.

Rather than altering the book for the stage Imitating The Dog use a chorus to narrate the descriptive passages, meaning that Hemingway's choppy but evocative expositions are not lost. The second function of the chorus is that of filmmakers, as they operate cameras that capture the action as it happens. This footage is then projected onto the set itself, meaning that each line is delivered both by the actors and by their cinematic selves.

As is often the case with work like this the worst and best bits stemmed from the same source. The projected images had a slight delay, which meant that the actors' voices were out of sync with the footage behind them. Rather like a rattling noise in a car it was a minor irritation you knew you should ignore but just couldn't. However, some of the projections were truly transporting, as when Frederic and Catherine were rowing across a lake, their faces combined with a scene of shimmering moonlit water. Further, the directors (Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, who also adapted the text) and actors chose to deliver the dialogue in a deadpan manner. In some places this worked well, capturing the hard nature of Hemingway's prose, but at other times it was so stunted that it became comical. This was particularly an issue for Atherton, whose delivery didn't quite work for much of the play, causing Catherine to come across as rather flat and frantic.

This production does exactly what it needed to: it tried out experimental storytelling ideas, and proved that these techniques can work and are worthwhile. Rarely have I felt that I, and the people I was with, had so much to say about a play, and while not all of it was positive much of it was. Finally, they did justice to a great book that can not have been easy to adapt to the stage - this is, in fact, the first time such a production has ever been put on in England.

Imitating The Dog are onto something here and, once they iron out a few technical issues, I am sure they will be making more interesting mixes with this technique sometime soon.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ed Waring

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