SMALLWAR Traverse, Edinburgh



“Our enemies are not the Germans, nor the Russians or the French. The common enemy of us all is the beast within”. As Syria, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine burn and the lights dim tonight to mark the World War I centenary, those words of Valentin Bulgakov are spoken by a nurse, beside a trolley where a maimed soldier lies dying. In a still-brutal world that cannot help but be powerful. In some ways that enforces caution: weeping for lost boys can be too easy.

But this is a treatment out of the ordinary from the Belgian theatremaker Valentijn Dhaenens. Last year the Soho theatre ran his BIGMOUTH – now also running at the Traverse. My review (paywall, said among other things “brace yourself for an unnerving, technically risky and thought-provoking hour…..[as] this elfin figure demonstrates with brilliant obliquity the art of oratory from Socrates and Pericles to George W. Bush”. In this premiere – again using words drawn from reality – he uses the writings of combatants, dissidents and nurses in wars from Attila the Hun to modern Afghanistan. And echoes the other play, with “There’s always going to be bigmouths who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life…in churches and schools, in newspapers and congresses”.

But the core of this disturbing, ghostly piece is that unnamed half-man on a hospital trolley. The nurse is Dhaenens himself in WW1 nurse’s uniform. Troublingly androgynous, but not out of place in a woman who – in the words of one of the real nurses – needs to renounce womanly empathy in order to cope with the terrible job day after day: the screaming, dying, gaping mutilations. She/he comments, relates the nursing day, reflects. Into a screen behind the passive dying patient rises not one but several of him, multiple images of Dhaenens. They walk, discuss, and speak on a telephone – lovingly or angrily – to loved ones at home, or call on the God who loves his “murderous little children”. One, bare-arsed in hospital gown, becomes an insistent priest telling the dying man to recite in French “God, I give you my life, willingly, for the fatherland”. Another begs a lullaby and “Wake me up mother, and tell me this isn’t real”.

Deep voiceover from the patient himself merely has him longing to live, to feel his legs and arms once more, to wriggle his toes, find the ring his sweetheart gave him, now maybe discarded on an amputated hand. By the end there are four figures, melting, growing , shrinking, mourning – some of the real letters are shattering – but one in the voice of the philosopher Ernst Jünger acknowledging the “ecstatic, fulfilling, horrible, obscene” pleasure of killing.

Once or twice, despite Dhaenens’ hypnotic presentation and the number of times I wrote “vids – brilliant” in the margin about Jeroen Wuyts’ design, a certain unease shimmered: the pity of war, the broken young bodies, will always move an audience. Sometimes there is more power in the more restrained stage evocations – like An August Bank Holiday Lark, or The Two Worlds of Charlie F. I worried once or twice – notably when Dhaenens sang Are You Lonely Tonight – that this was an artist saying “Look at me, making a Theatre Piece”. But in the end its power stilled such doubts. As the nurse says “Life is clean, death is clean..the gap in between, that’s another kettle of fish”. That harsh focus on the private dreams and sorrows of the dying underlines the terrible pointlessness, the dulce-et-decorum lie.

box office 0131 228 1434 To 24 Aug.

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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