In his latest show, Oliver Lansley’s company Les Enfant Terribles buries the audience beneath a blasted World War I trench, alongside soldier and ex-miner Bert. The play is from its opening moment visually entirely immersive, from the familiar (but no less claustrophobic) sight of grimy soldiers huddled against the trench wall, to something altogether stranger and more mysterious.
Bert (played by Ben Warwick) is a likeably earnest and rather vulnerable man, kindly disposed to his younger and more terrified fellow-soldier. Strongly reminiscent of the Jack Firebrace character in Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, the catastrophic explosion which buries him alive comes moments after news no less devastating: his beloved wife has died in childbirth. Dazed and numbed, he encounters a ghoulish apparition which offers him a Faustian route to salvation. As ever, Les Enfant Terribles mixes drama, puppetry and live music, demonstrating a laudable commitment to theatrical innovation.
There are aspects of this production which are exceptionally skilled: highest praise should go to designer Sam Wyer. The puppetry in particular is faultless – there were moments so startling and so eerie that I leaped in my seat, and a delightfully sad interlude in which Bert dreams of his pretty young wife was very affecting. Most striking of all, there was a moment in which the audience appeared to swoop up over the head of a soldier, taking a bird’s eye view of a nightmarish landscape.
However, there were aspects of this play which fatally compromised its overall impact. Lansley’s decision to write the script in blank verse could have been a stunning nod to the English dramatic heritage and a compelling, lyrical work in its own right. Unfortunately, alongside the iambic pentameter is a curiously old-fashioned lexis which would have sounded preposterously dated even in 1918 (only think of the sharp, wry verse of Siegfried Sassoon, or the lucid prose of Ford Madox Ford). Overly portentous lines such as ‘An opening presented forth itself’ would appear to have more in common than Bunyan or Milton than with the first truly modern war. Worse still, almost every object and encounter is described with heavy-handed metaphor – at one point I considered making a tally of the frequency the phrase ‘like a..’ was used – which instead of serving to make the pity and terror of war more vivid heaped overblown image upon image until the effect was almost absurd.
If the script seems anachronistic by virtue of appearing to have been written three hundred years before the events depicted, it could be argued that the unapologetically contemporary accompanying music rather averaged out the overall effect. Singer and musician Elliott Rennie has a sweet, melancholy voice, but I was unconvinced by the decision to set Coldplay-inflected guitar-based musings against all that dense and hectic verse. The use of folk songs in the National Theatre’s War Horse was infinitely more moving, and more in keeping.
Something further troubled me, and it was only on arriving home that I identified the problem. The crux of the play is that moment – hallucinatory or real: we are never quite sure – when Bert makes a pact with his ghoulish visitor, in a bid to save his own soul and those of his lost family. In the context of war drama, this plot device is intensely morally problematic, suggesting that the trenches could only be survived by those chosen few who proved themselves to be of sufficient courage and mettle. At best, this obscures the true pity and terror of war, which is that it is entirely random, entirely indiscriminate, wholly beyond laws of justice and reason. At worst, it is very faintly offensive.
Nonetheless, the company could not be faulted for its commitment to every aspect of an undoubtedly striking production, and one which contained moments of startling skill and innovation. There were a large number of school students in the audience, and since they seemed entirely rapt, Lansley and his company can congratulate themselves on having satisfied far harsher critics than this one.