Review: A Farewell To Arms, The Old Market Brighton

“Reading makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment”

Combining theatre and film with text and technology, Imitating the Dog’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell To Arms is an adventurous trek into multimedia storytelling. Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks’ direction sees the leads filmed live but separately, the footage combined into a single scene on large screens all around; Simon Wainwright’s video design sees pages of Hemingway’s book projected onto walls as the words deconstruct and dissolve around the actors; the adaptation foregrounds the epic love story between US ambulance driver Frederic Henry and British Catherine Barkley play out against the final year of the First World War, but it also sees the company commenting on and questioning the action even as they’re acting it out.

Furthermore for this performance (which I only later discovered was captioned as opposed to them being an integral part of the design) were the subtitles, adding in an extra layer to the potent mixture as another iteration of Hemingway’s narrative voice. The resulting interplay between the various media added a most fascinating texture – the text a constant reminder of its novel form, the minor variations uttered by the performers an indication of the artificiality of said context, and the live video slipping in and out of sync heightening the theatricality, becoming something more than just a simple replication of what is occurring but an interpretation of it, an alternative version even. The post-show discussion revealed a fair few people disgruntled by the time lag but for me it niggled with interest.

A consequence of all this innovation is that traditional notions of acting aren’t emphasised anywhere near as much as one might expect but again, within the theatrical world created here the decisions feel justified. Jude Monk McGowan brings an ideal brooding machismo to the narrating Henry and Laura Atherton captures the brittle nature of Catherine, consumed entirely by desire as their passionate affair takes them through love and war and childbirth. Joshua Johnson, Morven Macbeth, Matt Prendergast and Marco Rossi multi-role around them, sometimes in Italian and French, and the moments when the conceit breaks really stand out – Atherton/Catherine bristling at a mention of Henry being with other women during a scene she wasn’t technically ‘in’ being a striking example.

Aaand here comes the disclaimer. I ummed and aahed over where this should go, if anywhere at all, and I still haven’t quite figured it out but for what it’s worth, Laura Atherton is my cousin, my second cousin on my mother’s side to be precise. This is the first time I’ve seen her act professionally – she probably won’t thank me for mentioning the last performance I saw her give was a stunning interpretation of a reindeer in the Boxing Day pantomime at my Uncle Andy and Aunty Ann’s house last year (directed with no little panache by my niece Amélie Galbraith, a name to watch out for in the future, mark my words!) – however as there’s no etiquette guide on bloggers reviewing relatives, it’s hard to know whether declaring an interest is necessary or not. I’ve done it now though, so do with it what you will.

But related or not, this is some thought-provoking work indeed from Imitating the Dog and were it not the end of the UK tour for A Farewell To Arms, I’d be urging you to seek it out for yourself. It might not always be entirely successful – Jeremy Peyton-Jones’ plangent original score was a little overinsistently used for my liking – but it is always interesting, right from the moment the walls of Laura Hopkins’ artfully distressed set are smashed in and the company take up their cameras and costumes to begin their tale. With its admirable confidence and spirited invention, this is theatre that dares to ask a little more of its audience, and I’d wager many find it hard not to give it.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Ed Waring

Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 29th November, then touring to Rome, Ancona, Tirni and Bergamo

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