Thursday, 25 April 2019

Slaughterhouse Five - Theatre Review

What: Slaughterhouse Five
When: 24 April - 5 May 2019
Where: Theatre Works
Written and directed by: Fleur Kilpatrick
Performed by: Alanah Allen, Tim Banova, Sam Barson, Alexandras Bartaska, Georgina Bright, Caitlin Duff, Simran Giria, Reilly Holt, Emlyn Sugden, and Talia Zipper
Set by: Jason Lehane
Costumes by: Dil Kaur
Lighting by: John Collopy
Sound by: Justin Gardam

Georgina Bright and Alexandras Bartaska - photo by Sarah Walker
On ANZAC Day 2019 a show opened at Theatre Works which, in my opinion, is probably the most appropriate representation of what that day should be and say and feel rather than almost anything we have done in my lifetime. A stage remediation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five written and directed by Fleur Kilpatrick  and produced by MUST takes over the story of war until 5 May and what it has to say to those of us who have never been involved in one is beyond priceless and also almost beyond comprehension at the same time.

Published in 1969, Vonnegut's novel tells us the story of Billy Pilgrim, a private in the American army in World War II. He is an ordinary person with nothing special about him except he seems to spend his living years more as an oberver than a participant. After the Battle of the Bulge Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time.

He jumps from moment to moment in his life in a non-linear order and along the way he meets an alien race called the Tralfamadorians who believe (in what feels to me to be a very cubist approach) that time is not linear - as Dr Who has told us. All moments exists at the same time and so whilst in this moment someone may be dead, in a lot of other moments they are still very much alive. "So it goes".

It is so tempting to head on into a book review at this point but I must stick to the task at hand and review Kilpatrick's stage play and production Slaughterhouse Five. It will suffice for me to say the book engages with ideas of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, free will, Christianity and the ethics (or absurdity) of war including the fact we send children to fight them and die in them. "So it goes."

The book's post-modern non-linear structure (very Derridan), really lends itself to a theatrical remediation and Kilpatrick's choice to create a modern Epic Theatre piece is pure genius. Vonnegut has already created an alienated protagonist in Pilgrim and the surrounding characters create the dialectic Brecht was so committed to in his work. Add in a heavy helping of absurdism - and what else are Theatres of War but Theatre of the Absurd ? - and, ironically and sadly, Kilpatrick creates a world far more recognisable than any standard theatre canon piece on offer.

War is crazy. War makes no sense. War is random. War is predictable. War is made by people who will never stand on the fields of blood and terror and despair. War sends children to their death. War destroys societies. War is mass destruction. To be in the middle of any part of it is to be in the middle of every part of it. To be involved in war is to break and be broken. Perhaps Vonnegut's most telling line is this: "...if you think death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I've said."

There is so much content and so many ideas in the book it was a brave woman who tackled the story and managed to turn it into just over 2 hours of intriguing theatre - yes, there is an interval. Adopting the Epic style allowed Kilpatrick to retain much of Vonnegut's dark humour whilst our frontal lobes process the deeper philosophical questions and absorb the depths of horror.

Lehane (designer) has created a shifting and sliding world, ever moving around the confused and out of place Pilgrim (Barson). Blackboards on wheels move around him representing the idea of children still in the classroom and scientist working out their calculations and war generals making their battle plans and the strange heiroglyphics of Tralfamadorian books... "So it goes."

One moment Pilgrim is in a forest being saved by soldiers, next he is on his wedding night with his virgin wife, then he is in the middle of a classroom of children/teachers who are being the narrator and telling the story. "So it goes".

This idea of it being the children who fight war, live through war, and die in war is very strong in both the book and the play and if I have one major disappointment it is that it is not quite strong enough in the show. I would have liked Kaur (costumes) to play with that more, especially in the first act. The soldier costumes are almost too real for the tone of the work until the second act when we meet the Trafalmadorians and enter the porn shop when she takes us on wonderful flights of fancy.

I think I would have liked a sense of the costumes being oversized and ill-fitting - as if the cast were playing dress up and war - rather than it being so real. The first act is already so heavily laden with establishing the tone and style of story telling it all starts to feel like a long lecture. A stronger sense of play would perhaps make the ideas hit home even harder and reinforce Kilpatrick's directorial ideas more strongly.

The cast are all great and I loved how they really leaned into the presentational style and trusted it. To have wallowed in representation would have been overkill - literallly! Collopy's lighting is wonderfully stark and oppressive, and his restrained and specific use of smoke was a delight to see.

Perhaps the real star of the show though, is Gardam's sound design. From the very first drone of fighter planes - such an iconic sound of WWII - to the subtle and agile transitioning between space and time, Gardam creates a logic and emotional architecture which is subtle yet powerful.  Having said that, Kilpatrick's use of sound at the very end, created by the actors themselves, is more powerful and telling than perhaps anything I have seen in a very long time. "So it goes."

Kilpatrick's play manages to hold most of the ideas of the book and tell Vonnegut's story with integrity without losing sense or meaning. This is not at all easy given the depth and breadth of his philosophies and concerns. Her very smart and effective direction allows the audience into the meta concepts as well as the narratorial story and rarely leaves us behind. The marriage of Epic Theatre with post-modern text is perfectly placed and both serve to speak to our contemporary concerns and situations and remind us why we need to be so much more vigilant today than we were in the times of the Holocaust.

“It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.”

4 Stars

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