All Quiet on the Western Front

Directed by Mikyla Jane Durkan
The Casa, Liverpool
14th,15th, 17th, 19th and 22nd November 2014

Reviewed by Tom Calderbank

There are a lot of commemorations of the outbreak of World War One around at the moment, for obvious reasons: this is the centenary of the start of that catastrophe, after all. These events walk a fine line between honouring the dead and telling their truths, or lapsing into the jingoistic nationalism that got us into the fatal mess in the first place.

The latest production from the excellent Burjesta Theatre is firmly in the former camp. Their stage adaptation of Erich Remarque’s incredible anti-war novel ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ is an ambitious and moving portrayal of the horror and futility of war, told from the German perspective.

Before the play begins, there is an exhibition of great paintings by Gillian Paterson-Fox, and photographs by Neil Murphy, Alan Bower and Angie Hayden. They depict images of the Somme, Ypres, the Menin Gate and replica trenches. One picture in particular stood out for me: taken by Alan, it shows the words ‘SOMEDAY WE’LL UNDERSTAND’ inscribed in marble.

Someday, Al, someday...

It’s great to see yet another production in the back room of The Mighty Casa. Bujesta have plans for further transforming the venue into a top city-centre fringe theatre performance space, by putting up in-house lighting in the new year. With such quality creative spaces under increasing attack in the city (see Mello Mello, The Kazimier, etc, etc, etc), this can only be a positive thing and based on the performance tonight, we have a lot to look forward to.

The set is sparse: a bare stage, a stool, and a table that doubles as a bed. But suddenly, we’re in Germany in 1914. That’s the magic of theatre for you.

We begin with a man crying. It’s Franz Kemmerich, a broken man who has just had a leg amputated, writhing in agony and fixated on his stolen watch.

He’s surrounded by members of his platoon. One comrade just want his boots after he’s dead. Only his friend stays by his side. This is Paul Baumer. Not a hero, just a boy who believed the line spun by his headmaster in the next scene. There he stands, addressing the class, inspiring them with talk of “iron men, and great heroes, defending the Fatherland.” Some may say the students here are too young to go and fight. But is a “little experience such a bad thing for a boy?”

He assures them that it will be “a quick war, with few casualties”. All be over by Christmas. His chest swells as he tells of a class in another school, who rose as one to enlist; would he be forgiven for feeling pride if you all emulated them? He also quoted them the ‘old lie’ (as dear Wilfred Owen skewered forever), “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori”. It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.

I was struck by the thought that all sides were being told the same old lie. We still are; and so the boys shout and cheer and celebrate. and enlist. On the front line, they will all be disabused of their fantasies. “Young was a long time ago”, Baumer tells us.

The lights dim... and then come up on his platoon, made up of some great characters: Kat, the seen-it-all old hand, who knows the grammar of war (a great performance by Alan Bower, who brought a real sense of understanding to the role). Kropp. Muller. Kantorek. A smattering of ill-starred new recruits. Baumer.

Unable to settle they all just WAIT. The cast convey the monotony of war, the hours of strangely scary boredom, fighting off the rats, when BOOM! The shelling begins, as much from your own side as the enemy’s. Kat tells them they’re “in for a show” tonight. Even worse than the seven days and nights of continuous bombing on the Somme.

As the platoon scatter in abject fear, Kat keeps them calm. He tells one of the new recruits that its no shame to fill your pants, " just to go over in the forest and throw away your underpants". A tender moment, with Kat trying to preserve a man’s dignity, amidst the chaos of continuous bombardment.

Very effective use of light and sound brought us all to the front line. When Baumer shouts “Make it stop!” you could only agree. You can tell which kind of injury the wounded had in no man’s land by how much noise they made. "That one’s making too much noise for a chest wound. Probably a spinal injury. Takes him a day to die." Kat knows when it's a death rattle. Everyone looks alternately startled and brow beaten. These soldiers are children...

Then there’s a gas attack. There is an ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ for their masks, Those who don’t make it in time die slowly, faces black, lips blue. Time stretches. In B Company, only seven of the original 150 recruits from his school remain. Baumer recounts how they died: one face split in two by a spade; one holding his guts in his hands; tops of skulls missing; mouths missing; backs torn out; a relentless parade of horror. The best sound for those left? NO GUNS.

A moment’s relief comes for him, Kropp and Tjaden when they encounter three madamoiselles. They try and chat the girls up in comedy broken French, across a canal, and plan an evening assignation. The girls can’t resist tucking into their sausages. Baumer’s girl stares into his eyes, and says with great pity and love “la guerre, grande malore....? They kiss and find solace in each other’s embrace.

Paul comes home on 17 days leave to find his mother ill in bed, dying of cancer. Her relief at seeing him is palpable, a tremendous performance by Gillian Paterson-Fox. It’s hard times on the home front, with shortages of everything. Despite that, it is just normal life. What’s life all about if not THIS, the ordinary, to feel it with your whole being. But Baumer just wants to get back to the front.

He meets his old headmaster in the street, who still tries to tell him about “standing firm” and “giving the 'Froggies' a bloody nose”. But Paul’s innocence has given way to experience.

It’s when he meets Kemmerich’s mam that he really wants to leave. “Why are you still alive when he’s dead?” she wants to know. She needs to know exactly how her boy died. He lies to comfort her. It was quick. He felt nothing. She knows differently. She felt his anguish. Great acting from both Adam Byrne and Gillian, here. Paul’s haunted look when he’s sworn on his own life that he’s telling the truth, and hugs her, is really effective.

On Paul’s last night, his mam strokes his hair, sad beyond belief by the sure and painful knowledge of each other’s imminent demise. And the weight of things unsaid...

Act 2 opened back at the front “a giant unseen cage”. Reunited with at least some of his old comrades, he sees the results of a trench mortar: men literally blown out of their uniforms. Bits of people, hanging in the trees. Paul gets lost and has to play dead in the water as a French platoon go past. One of the French soldiers spots Baumer and attacks him. Paul pulls out his knife and stabs him in the stomach. As the man dies, Paul tries to comfort him, begging forgiveness for killing him. “If you changed uniform, you’d be a brother to me.” He looks at the photograph of the man’s five-year-old daughter, and promises to look after her. His name is Gerard Duvall. It’s different if you’ve killed someone and know their name.

Reunited with his unit, Baumer is traumatised by what he’s done. Kat and the others welcome him back. That’s how it is. What else can you do? Kill or be killed. The snipers are keeping score, shooting people like rabbits.

In the next village dug out, the lads encounter a couple of piglets and the wherewithal to cook themselves a feast. They make mock of the German aristocrats and officers, all the ‘vons’. They debate who started the war and “which of us is right?”. Teachers, preachers and newspapers on both sides proclaim it, but who profits from war? Find them and you will find your answer. The arms manufacturers for a start. Governments. Reconstruction firms. War has destroyed everyones most cherished ambitions. The Russians had a revolution and are suing for peace. They’re tired of the bloodshed. Could a revolution happen here...?

There’s a nice bit of levity when they all get the shits. That’s rich French food on German peasant stomachs for you. Then the fatal bomb hits. In the hospital back in Germany (NB: A wound that got you sent back home here was known as a ‘Blighty’. What was the German equivalent?), run by strict and overbearing Catholic nuns, Paul and his mate are laid up, and everyone’s scared of getting transferred to ‘The Dying Room’. Next stop stop from there is the morgue.

Paul has a walking stick, now. He gestures with it, to all the wounded soldiers behind him “after thousands of years of civilization, how have we come to this?” The endgame plays out with a grim inevitability.

Baumer’s the only one left out of his class of schoolmates. He sees Kat as his father. So when Kat takes shrapnel, and dies, Baumer’s left with nothing but some personal affects. The revelation at the end is unspeakably sad, and left this reviewer and his mate just a bit teary-eyed.

All the actors bring Julian Bond’s adaptation to life, and should be applauded. They speak in their own working-class Liverpool accents, rather than cod German, and this only increased this audience’s empathy with the characters.

Special mention to the lead, Adam Byrne, for his portrayal of the main character, Paul Baumer. Not only is his acting superb, his youthful looks add to the poignancy of the piece, and underline the point that we’re effectively talking about children being fed into the mincing machine.

I’d also like to single out Helen Shrimpton, who excelled in her four roles, particularly as Frau Kemmerich, the bereft mother of Baumer’s best friend. The scene in which she begs him to tell her the truth of how her son died is heartbreaking.

Well done to Director Mikyla Jane Durkan, for getting such a great performances from her cast. By all accounts, this has been a roller coaster of emotion for all concerned. In her programme notes, Mikyla sums it up beautifully: “For both myself and many the actors it has been at times very upsetting and disturbing, but we have been compelled to retell this story, which is unfortunately as relevant today as when it was when first created.”

This wasn’t an easy play to watch. There are no song and dance numbers. Despite the welcome moments of levity, the overall mood is somber and grief-stricken. It’s a warning from history. No wonder the Nazis banned and burned the book, and let loose rats in cinemas showing the film.

Don’t go if you want a fun evening’s light entertainment. However, if you want to be moved, educated and get a real insight into how ordinary troops – on all sides – thought and felt about the ‘Great War’, then I can’t recommend this play highly enough.

It stands as a testimony to the pals that were lost. Spirits of the dead: we salute you!

Richard Gardiner – RIP.


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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Peter on 25th November, 2014 at 13:21
I went and was very impressed with the performance. Your review is spot on. I know Alan, and know how much work was put into this production by the whole cast. They are very serious and professional. Well done to all.