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Shining light in a world darkened by conflict

Support or funding by foreign governments has been a contentious issue this August, for Festival and Fringe shows alike.

Haley McGee, left, and Lisa Ryder in the Canadian Stage production of Helen Lawrence at the King's Theatre 	Photograph: David Cooper
Haley McGee, left, and Lisa Ryder in the Canadian Stage production of Helen Lawrence at the King's Theatre Photograph: David Cooper

Sometimes, however, that backing is itself a cause for optimism and celebration. Look among the credits of Front, and you'll note that not only is this depiction of trench warfare a co-production between NT Gent and Thalia Theater of Hamburg, and that it is performed in German, Flemish, French and English, but that it is supported by the government of Flanders and the consulate general of the Federal Republic of Germany. Given the wounds - physical, mental, historical - that the play recreates so viscerally on stage, such cross-border collaboration between nations, a century on from the start of the First World War, is a positive light in a darkening world of conflict.

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Front also mixes its source texts and character perspectives. Drawing, most notably, from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front and Henri Barbusse's Under Fire, it describes itself as a "polyphonic performance". And indeed languages clash, even as sheets of metal at the back of the stage are hammered to convey the industrialised thunder of war. Visually, the cast emerge like ghosts from the shadows along the front of the stage, lit from below by lights on music stands, dressed in dishevelled evening wear. The actors are as confrontationally close to the audience as enemy soldiers were in their trenches in Flanders fields.

Some of the more formal theatrical techniques, abstract movement devices and mannered vocal deliveries risk intellectual empathy alone on the audience's part. However, a late shared moment of humanity in a trench (forcefully rendered by German actor Bernd Grawert) and the tragic journey from gentle innocent to needless sacrifice of Belgian farm boy Emiel (Oscar van Rompay) ultimately allow Front to deliver an emotional blow.

Video projection, sparingly used in Front as a backdrop, plays a key role in Helen Lawrence, a 1940s crime drama presented in a theatrical space in almost purely cinematic terms. The cast of this Canadian Stage production act inside blue walls, ceiling and floor; their performances are captured live by a bank of video cameras which then fill in hotel rooms, cheap furniture and street scenes on the wrong side of the tracks, all projected where the "fourth wall" should be on a gauze-like cinema screen.

This artistic trick of allowing us to see the minute details of a cinematic close up in the same gaze as the body language of a theatrical "long shot" isn't new, but it's effective here as the visual language of film noir - extreme camera angles, black-and-white images - is given an in-the-moment immediacy. An "edit" that, in performance terms, happens only a few feet apart on stage can take us, in narrative terms, all the way across town.

It's undoubtedly clever on a technical level, and the visual aesthetics of the genre do draw out the pulp nature of the story (a femme fatale stalks the man who done her wrong to post-war Vancouver, where a corrupt cop comes up against resistance as he plans to take over the speakeasies), but the character stereotypes ultimately render the story rather bland. Helen Lawrence's narrative strength lies more in the way it captures an exact time and place: Vancouver in 1948, where certain characters have been fractured by their wartime experiences and tensions are tangible between those who fought and those who stayed at home.

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