Arnika – Bridewell Theatre, London

Writer: Mick Wood

Director: Natasha Wood

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Wars are full of atrocities, often huge political or military action against an entire nation or targeted group undertaken by those following a heinous ideology, and forever recorded in history. But there are plenty of smaller acts of betrayal committed by ordinary people that remain shrouded in mystery. Plenty of people disappear in wartime and whose to say they didn’t all die honourably on some battlefield rather than in much stranger circumstances.

Mick Wood’s new play Arnika, based on real events in Alsace examines the effect of conflict and identity in a small community unhappily sandwiched between Second World War antagonists France and Germany. Dealing with the memory of collusion and the consequences of fighting for one side and later enduring peacetime government from the other, Wood frames his wider themes in a tale domestic sacrifice and a community haunted by one act of defiance.

It’s 1951 and a Parisian Commissaire, Lamar, arrives in the village to investigate the wartime disappearance of a resistance fighter (Lucian) and two young soldiers (Paul and Remi) called up by the SS to serve on the Russian front. Talking to the families of the soldiers, Lamar encounters evasion and confusion among the Black Forest community, but his methods soon yield results. As he edges closer to the truth, strange activities occur, and a mentally fragile young woman named Arnika knows more than she can remember.

Wood’s play, directed by Natasha Wood, is a complex story that attempts to combine multiple drivers with influences from local folk art and performance from the region. As well as using a whodunnit format as the backbone of the story and to maintain the audience’s investment in finding out who killed Lucien, there is also an attempt to establish the nature and difficulties of small village life in the boarder-regions, as well as having an overarching narrative from a soldier in SS uniform who acts as an interpreter, giving shape and meaning to the scenes presented.

And in some places that works well, Wood does create a sense of the claustrophobia and fear of living in an area that has been a frequent bargaining chip in peace treaties, while offering a story that is inventively told with minimal props and only seven actors. Yet, at the same time Arnika’s scope also feels too large and doesn’t satisfactorily mange the three different points of view the audience has to follow – Lamar, the Soldier and Arnika – leaving the drama to dissipate across three long and meandering hours of theatre.

A much trimmer version of the play could focus entirely on the missing man and draw its tension from Lamar’s increasingly explosive interviews with the secretive villagers. These are currently Arnika’s best moments, as Tom Grace’s Lamar utilises different techniques to extract information from the two families – either flattering their taste in art to build rapport or forcing them to lose their tempers and reveal all. Having Eddie Toll’s Soldier as a narrator is also a good device to unite the distanced historical context with the local drama, but his role in the eventual denouement could make the motivation for the crime much clearer while retaining the ambiguity of the ending.

The villagers too are a little muddy in the current draft, and, aside from too much scene-setting that dilutes the pace throughout, most of the characters are not distinct enough. While some of this young cast play roles much older than they are, that is not always clear enough, so the parents and children set-up more often seem like five people of equivalent age. The role of Arnika herself is even less obvious, and although she is given a central role and Ruby Richardson earns a few laughs with her energetic performance, ultimately her story seems to run in parallel to the main plot rather than being integral to it, so it’s not entirely clear what the point the character is being used to make.

Miles Ascough’s masks are suitably grotesque, providing a useful anonymity for the actors when they’re doubling up as scenery, and the simple production values give the ensemble a chance to convincingly create a number of locations from the forest filled with birdsong to the hubbub of the local inn. Given it’s 1951, the traditional dress evoking the eighteenth or nineteenth-century is at odds with the modernity of the story – really Lamar should have looked like an alien presence, given a different uniform rather than wearing the same peasant dress as everyone else. And while the idea of a troupe of local actors performing this folk-tale is an interesting one, making a point of divvying up the parts at the start is rather undermined by the already assigned roles on the programme sheet.

With a slight simplification of the plot, Wood’s play could easily reveal an untold aspect of twentieth-century history while also being a satisfactory piece of theatre. At its heart, Arnika does have an interesting and important story to tell about the complicated effects of warfare for areas like Alsace and the unpredictable responses of ordinary people in time of extreme crisis.

Runs until: 2 March 2018 | Image: Tom Crooke/Bobbin Productions. 

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