BREVIEW: The War of the Worlds @ Old Joint Stock Theatre 25-31.10.2017

Words by Lucy Mounfield

Tin Robot Theatre specialise in bold plays adapted from well-known texts, with previous productions at the Old Joint Stock – Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart – all being well received. But can their new take on H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction The War of the Worlds live up to this burgeoning reputation?

First published in 1897, The War of the Worlds has since entered the popular consciousness, spawning dozens of derivative works including radio plays, films and theatre productions. The iconic 1978 concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, proved to be a phenomenal success – selling three million copies in the UK alone and spawning a long-running stage musical.

Tin Robot Theatre’s production hearkens back to an earlier time. Whilst researching for the play, director Adam Carver listened to the infamous 1938 radio play directed and narrated by Orson Welles, broadcast as a Halloween Special on CBS in America – infamous because many of those listening to the opening ‘warning’ thought they were being informed of a real alien invasion. It is this sense of realism, as opposed to the high camp of the 1978 concept album, that characterises the Tin Robot Theatre production.

As we enter the studio space, configured as a theatre-in-the-round, the scene is already set. A desk is in the centre; on the desk lies a contraption upon which the bespectacled Pearson (Touwa Craig-Dunn) is working. Upon the table are two silver arched desk lamps – the arms of which evoke the legs of the alien tripods, a chilling reminder of the aggressors that we never actually see. We take our seats and don our wireless headphones, tuning in to a crackling radio broadcast about a red sky over England. The inclusion of factual information alongside fictitious broadcasts like this provides verisimilitude; Tin Robot Theatre are interested in the ‘totality’ of the play, and touches like this serve to immerse the audience, creating the feeling that we really are listening in on the end of the world via radio.

Throughout the production the year or date of the atrocities is never mentioned – the props are neutral and this adds to the sense of universality surrounding the themes of conflict. Indeed, aliens are not referred to as the culprits of the devastation until Pearson hears from the first voice (Grace Hussey-Burd) and the artillery man (Joel Heritage). Up until this point I half expected them to say the heat-burns were the result of a terrorist attack. These theatrical tropes enable us to reflect on our own society and how invariably desensitised we have become to war; in this age of fake news and social media, the ‘truth’ is a suspect notion and something that Carver channels by bombarding our senses with sounds, voices and news slogans that are on a constant repeat.

Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is essentially a radio play, which is both its strength and its weakness. Of the cast we only ever see Pearson, as the rest are heard only through the headphones, and whilst Craig-Dunn’s performance was naturalistic the burden of conveying the emotional impact of the scenes narrated by the other characters falls on his shoulders. The remote cast clearly enunciates their lines, sometimes too much so, but the pace of Pearson’s performance is also sometimes bogged down by repetition of movements and dialog.

The script draws heavily from Wells’ writing. Often, descriptive passages were lifted wholesale and tweaked slightly so that they might work more plausibly as dialog. In places this works to great effect, but at times it also falls flat. In the 1897 text, Wells’ opening lines crackle with the menace of a hostile universe; here they are diluted and deadened, lacking their original impact – ending up as the worst of both worlds, not quite narration and not quite dialog.

These things are not entirely negative however. The disjoint between Craig-Dunn and the rest of the cast serves to produce a sense of unreality; you are never sure whether these voices are real, whether they are in his head, or whether the aliens even exist at all. The doorway on which Pearson pins his notes, and through which he exits at the end, is a constant reminder of the uncertainty of the outside world.

One of the highlights of the play is the curate’s (Jack Robertson) hysterical breakdown. Here, sound was used effectively to convey a sense of panic as we hear screaming voices, gun fire, machinery, and radio distortion, reaching an unbearable crescendo. To see Pearson wreathing and wrenching on the floor is just as unbearable and highlights the horror of what we are hearing. This is where the play comes alive – Craig-Dunn’s performance is compelling as he reacts with horror to the audio sound emitted from his radio.

Overall, Carver and company deliver an atmospheric and bold take on The War of the Worlds, immersing the audience in a claustrophobic apocalypse and evoking the best of 20th century Sci Fi. And despite a somewhat jarring end with the opening song from Jeff Wayne’s rock opera, which reduces a thought provoking finale to a postmodern self-reference, the tone of Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is serious, bleak and a far cry from the 1978 concept album.

Tin Robot Theatre‘s production of The War of the Worlds runs at the Old Joint Stock until Tuesday 31st October. For direct event info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

For more on The War of the Worlds, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk/whats-on/the-war-of-the-worlds

For more on Tin Robot Theatre, visit www.adamgcarver.com/theatre/tin-robot-theatre/

For more from The Old Joint Stock, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk

BREVIEW: 5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline @ 48 Signal Squadron Army Reserve Centre 14.10.17

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim Cross

Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production pics by Tim Cross

“You’re dead!”– this eerie and flinchingly realistic command comes from the drill sergeant (Reece Causton) during the opening section of Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline.

For a minute or two I found these alienating shouts disturbing and disorientating – frequently looking round the room for an enemy attack. What am I watching, a troop of soldiers on drill manoeuvres or five dancers? Combining the haunting atmosphere of the Army Reserve Centre in Sparkbrook with Kay’s athletic choreography, 5 Soldiers fuses the macho world of the army with contemporary dance and blurs the boundaries between reality and spectacle.

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossIn most theatrical dance productions, the themes of conflict and war have been portrayed as a series of synchronized movements mapped out as a struggle between good and evil. Traditional three-act ballets such as Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet utilise formation set pieces to depict fencing and gang violence, for example, and these tend to follow the clinical pattern of formal choreographic tropes. Traditionally, dance had no place for realism; choreography became a means to tell a story. 5 Soldiers does the opposite, mixing army training techniques with the robotic bold lines of Kay’s choreography to create an immersive experience.

What sets 5 Soldiers apart from traditional productions is the fact that there is no discernible enemy. The dancers react and respond to the invisible. Here, this alienating and intimate setup allows Kay to explore the inner workings of the soldier free from narrative constraints. Using the simple tripartite structure following three basic elements of an army career enables the performance to focus on the brutal physicality of being a soldier, an existence that is unforgiving of gender roles.

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossThe second section of the production develops the camaraderie and relationships between soldiers. In training and combat a soldier is a soldier regardless of gender, but during down time this becomes problematic. This is shown in an uncomfortable sequence wherein the only female officer (Harriet Ellis) strips down to her underwear whilst dancing to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. She slowly takes away the armour and makeup that dehumanizes her, her camo gear strewn to one side.

Here, she and her male colleagues wrestle with their duty and their desires. What plays out during the song is not so different to the military drills in the first section – high leg kicks and sharp staccato lines – but without the regalia and insignia of the armed forces. Stripped bare, performing the splits in front of her male peers she becomes sexualised and offers her gender more freely than before. In another way, this is another layer of armour to protect herself from the physical differences between her and the others.

This second part also makes clear the awkward tension between soldiers’ public and private selves. The machismo gestures in this scene are clearly driven by their vulnerability. They pursue the female soldier until they realise their actions are inappropriate. 5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossHowever, from here they turn to her as a mother figure, highlighting their reliance upon gender stereotypes and the emotional outlet that they lack.

The men remorsefully hold Ellis aloft on their shoulders as if she is sitting upon a throne. They march alongside her whilst Causton moves his hands as if to crown her. Fantasy is a key aspect of 5 Soldiers; everyone has projected their fantasy of protection, Britain-as-mother and their duty to her, onto the female soldier. The men want to be everything at once; action man, hero, lover, protector and father but this comes at a cost.

The third and last section of the piece shows one of the soldiers being shot (Duncan Anderson), as a result of which he undergoes a double amputation below the knee. The other dancers bind his legs, and a brief sequence shows him re-learning how to move in his altered body, at first supported by his comrades and then alone. 5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossFor me this exemplifies where 5 Soldiers is at its best, but also raises questions. One connects with the subjective experience of amputation, of trauma, almost of being born again into a strange new body. The hardships and complexities of existing as a woman in a man’s world are vividly and intelligently rendered.

But this focus also results in the erasure of the outside world. Our soldiers are on patrol in a country that is strangely empty, full of danger but devoid of subjectivity – the mere backdrop of their personal stories. It is confusing that the marketing material makes the claim that 5 Soldiers ‘offers no moral judgment on war’.

I think this obscures the real point that 5 Soldiers isn’t about war as such, it’s about the human and bodily element of combat. But then this tour is supported by the British Army; tonight’s performance was hosted in an Army reserve base. Why? Clearly for the Army this is a public relations exercise, to ‘engage’ people and break down barriers as was made clear in the post-performance discussion. But 5 Soldiers is not reducible to that; it stands on its own as a nuanced depiction of military life.

5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I93cQr9LtlY

For more on 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk/5-soldiers

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk

For further details on the Army Reserve Centre (Golden Hillock Road, Sparkbrook, B11 2QG), visit www.army.mod.uk/join/37787.aspx

For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

BPREVIEW: 5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline @ 48 Signal Squadron Army Reserve Centre 13-14.10.17

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production pics by Tim Cross

Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production pics by Tim Cross

On Friday 13th and Saturday 14th October, Rosie Kay Dance Company will bring their acclaimed 5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline back to Birmingham for two performances. 5 Soldiers has been previously performed at the REP – but this time, interestingly, the show will be hosted by the 48 Signal Squadron Army Reserve Centre in Sparkbrook, as part of the REP’s autumn programme.

5 Soldiers is produced and performed by Rosie Kay Dance Company, a West Midlands based organisation headed by the eponymous Rosie Kay. Rosie Kay Dance Company was established in 2004 and has a number of productions in its repertoire, including The Wild Party, Supernova and MK Ultra – the latter recently toured the UK, which Charlotte Heap covered for Birmingham Review in March 2017. To read Helen Knott’s interview with Rosie Kay, ahead of the MK Ultra performance, click here.5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production pics by Tim Cross

5 Soldiers is production through contemporary dance, that focuses on the everyday life and challenges a soldier faces. The piece is split into three parts and represents the three major evolutionary stages that a person must take to become a soldier: the first depicts training, the second the camaraderie and relationship between the soldiers, and the third explores combat. In the course of preparing for the piece, Kay and her dancers spent time with a rifle battalion and this was an influence on the choreography itself.

5 Soldiers portrays the lives of individual soldiers from both a male and female perspective; four men and one woman depict the varying roles of three riflemen, one sergeant and one officer, alongside the challenges that an army career can incur.5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production pics by Tim Cross Interestingly Rosie Kay has chosen to focus on the human element of army life, rather than the mechanical and technological advances of urban warfare. This was a deliberate decision, according to Kay, who explained her approach in a 2015 interview with Sophie Neal at Redbrick:

‘It’s divided into three parts. The first demonstrates how repetitive training can be and how it continually pushes the body to the limits. The second shows the soldiers letting off steam and how their training has affected their relationships with each other. The final section is called ‘on the ground’ and this is what it’s like to be on patrol. The most dancing is in this section and it really does look like they are in combat.’

Using a tripartite narrative, the choreographer is able to focus on the importance of the soldier and the physicality and human strength within the armed forces. Whilst having an ensemble cast follow the same three key moments at the same time allows emphasis on the collective aspect of being a soldier.5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production pics by Tim Cross

Hopefully 5 Soldiers will further re-focus and humanise the depiction of war, perhaps moving away from the more long-held theatrical stereotypes of the army and armed forces. But Rosie Kay Dance Company must tread a fine line with 5 Soldiers – while the show depicts combat, the focus is on the subjective experience of the soldiers and the physicality of their bodies, with the REP’s promotional material stating the production ‘offers no moral judgment on war’.

The difficulty is that with an issue as charged as war, and the protagonists who feature in it from the front line, it’s hard not to at least solicit a viewpoint of some form – be it from the audience, or more subconsciously from the ensemble and company themselves.

Setting the performance at an army base brings this all the closer to home, and it’s hard not to think of all those fallen in battle and those that continue to serve. The further challenge for 5 Soldiers, and for Rosie Kay Dance Company, will be whether the production can focus on the subjective experience of a battalion of soldiers and offer no stance on war without being restrained by its neutrality.

The performances will take place on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th October at the 48 Signal Squadron Army Reserve Centre on Golden Hillock Road in Sparkbrook, within easy access of Small Heath train station and bus routes.

5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I93cQr9LtlY

For more on 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk/5-soldiers

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk

For further details on the 48 Signal Squadron Army Reserve Centre (Golden Hillock Road, Sparkbrook, B11 2QG), visit www.army.mod.uk/signals/25765.aspx

For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk