Acclaimed accordion-botherers Les Enfants Terribles swap their chalky slap and stripy shirts for a caking of Flanders mud and cordite in an atmospheric freak-out on the battlefields of WWI. Replete with great visuals and highly inventive staging, things go awry when a cluster bomb of whimsy is detonated smack bang in the middle of the horrors of war.
Writer and director Oliver Lansley takes the role of Bert, who fights to join up despite his age and the pregnant wife he leaves behind. Plunged into the grinding madness of the trenches, dreadful news from home and a stray mine entomb him in a literal and hallucinatory nightmare as he struggles for his life and to find some sense or purpose in the conflict.
The early scenes are played out with Lansley’s characteristic ingenuity, as a line of duckboards and smart physicality see Bert trudging through airless tunnels and picking tentatively under no man’s land. Richard Mansfield contributes a gallery of projected shadow puppets, as the battlefield is re-imagined as a network of ant-like figures plugging futilely at the earth. Though Alexander Wolfe’s live soundtrack on guitar and vocals could (perhaps uncharitably) be described as bed-wetting indie rock, a sequence in which music emerges from the rhythmic clicking of a rifle bolt and a xylophone in a box of ammunition is charming and effective.
Unfortunately, a sudden tonal shift and a bout of impressive shark jumping sees The Trench swerve wildly into one of the duller environs of left-field. The arrival of a cloven-hoofed goblin, however well-realised and skilfully manipulated, sees the action descend into a loosely allegorical three-quests folk-tale that makes only a sketchy sort of sense and stops the play’s dramatic tension mid-surge. Lansley has form for falling back on hoary Aarne-Thompson standards, and as far as these narratives go this one is accomplished and occasionally even arresting, but it fatally hamstrings the emotional weight of Bert’s story.
The goblin’s quests fit the conventional model pioneered by the Brothers Grimm and perfected by Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: cross a plain without looking back, solve a riddle from a sleeping beast and so on, but here they have been given a Somme-ish spin. It allows for some beautiful puppetry and uncanny stage pictures but it is also intellectually lazy and dramatically unsatisfying. Bert’s meeting with a towering mustard gas monster is a spectacular set-piece, but it’s not about mustard gas at all, it’s not about its effects or its significance. Mustard gas doesn’t pose you a pop quiz on the morality of war, it burns your skin and eviscerates your lungs, so no matter how impressive your monster appears, it is also essentially meaningless.
It all contributes to the impression that Lansley isn’t interested in the topic, but merely the aesthetic, the trappings and the costumes. The image of barbed wire threaded with fairy-lights is a perfect encapsulation of this misplaced lyricism; war is self-evidently ugly, The Trench is self-consciously beautiful. Sam Wyer’s set is a masterpiece of adaptability and there are several breathtaking moments of puppetry and physical theatre, but Lansley’s script can’t match the ambition or vitality of his visual acumen. Some stories thrive on the Tim Burton organises Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s stag-night shtick of Les Enfants, but this isn’t one of them.
Accepted on its own terms, however, (which requires quite a leap into Lansley’s theatrical world) and if riddles, goblins and quests don’t make you want to eat your own eyes, The Trench is another polished production from the fringe stalwarts.