Writer: Ernest Hemingway
Music: Jeremy Payton-Jones
Directors: Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
Doomed love is a very hackneyed phrase, and capturing it realistically on a stage is a huge task for a theatre company. The spectres of Romeo and Juliet, Love Story, The English Patient, Brokeback Mountain and numerous other tragic love stories live on in the minds of the audience, but this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s epic novel A Farewell to Arms, is in line to equal or overshadow most of them.
From the moment the six actors step onto the set – arranged as a wartime hospital ward, complete with metal bedsteads and wheeled screens – one is transported back to the First World War with all its desperation and misery. The bombing scenes are realistic enough to draw gasps from the audience; blood appears to run down the walls as our hero Frederic Henry, an American inexplicably driving an ambulance for the Italian army, is seriously wounded almost losing his legs. He’s nursed back to fitness (and seduced in his hospital bed) by Catherine, the English VAD he’d met earlier who had as one of his mates declared, given him “that pleasant air of a dog on heat”.
The pace quickens as Frederic returns to the warzone, then deserts and rekindles his romance with the pregnant Catherine, making the decision to flee over the water to Switzerland where they live the cosy life of the young couple in love embarking on family life. It all ultimately spirals out of their control, the choice between ‘high forceps’ or ‘Caesarean Section’ seems academic by the time the baby is dragged into the world, and Frederic’s life closes down as he “walks back to the hotel in the rain”.
The emotion created in this performance is raw; the crying that opens the first scene is heart-rending, and the war scenes engulf the theatre in terror. The relentlessly-turning pages of the original text projected alongside the close-up, sometimes haggard, images of the main characters’ faces add to the atmosphere; and as all the actors take turns to both narrate and operate the two cameras mounted on the stage, the audience is drawn into the tragedy. Much of the banter is spoken in Italian, and there’s quite a bit of French too, but somehow the language doesn’t matter. If there is a fault in this wonderful work by Imitating the Dog, it is the translation of the Italian running across the ceiling beam can occasionally be somewhat distracting. The meaning would be clear without the words being spelled out.
But ultimately nothing can detract from the talent and skill of this young company. Laura Atherton as Catherine and Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic are the main characters in the story, but the other four actors are no less leading players, doubling up parts constantly and doing their own scene changes. There are Italian, American, Scottish and French accents spoken like true natives, and everyone looks at home both behind a camera or a gun.
This is definitely a performance to see. Take your hankie, and afterwards reflect on the true power of love and the utter brutality and banality of modern warfare – both perfectly portrayed in A Farewell to Arms.
Runs until: Sat 1 Nov 2014