All Quiet on the Western Front
by Mikyla Jane Durkan
The Casa, Liverpool
14th,15th, 17th, 19th and 22nd November 2014
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 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
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
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
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
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
It stands as a testimony to the pals that were lost. Spirits of the dead:
we salute you!
Richard Gardiner – RIP.
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.