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Voices from the war reveal horrors of life on Front line

When Belgian theatre director Luk Perceval decided he wanted to live and work in Germany, his parents apparently warned him against such a move.

LuK Perceval: Was warned against working in Germany by his parents.
LuK Perceval: Was warned against working in Germany by his parents.

The Germans killed their countrymen, they said, so why would he possibly want to live there?

This is what the director whose last work to be seen in Edinburgh was his 2004 production of Andromache told Christina Bellingen, the dramaturg of the Thalia Theatre, Hamburg, anyway.

Bellingen worked closely with Perceval on Front, an epic, multi-lingual spoken-word polyphony brought to Edinburgh International Festival this week in a co-production between the Thalia and NTGent from Belgium.

Front is based in part on All Quiet On The Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque's novel published in 1929, which sold more than two and a half million copies in 22 different languages over 18 months.

Remarque's book, which was filmed twice in 1930 and 1979, was also burnt by the Nazis when they came to power. Front also draws from Under Fire, written in 1916 by Henri Barbusse while still a soldier fighting the war he went on to chronicle. These are put together with contemporary accounts of life during wartime and related in a mixture of German, French, Flemish and English.

"We are showing the war from these four different perspectives," Bellingen says. "There are soldiers on either side speaking German, French or Flemish, and we have a nurse from Great Britain getting in touch with a wounded soldier from Belgium. But we are not playing war on stage. You will not find guns going off or anything like that, and the actors are not in uniform. They wear suits like they are sitting in the dining room of the Titanic as it sinks"

During the performance, which opened in Hamburg earlier this year, projections of young soldiers illustrate the criss-crossing testimonies spoken by the actors.

"It is done out of respect," says Bellingen, "to get the voice of the people. The actors are the voices of the unknown soldiers. You can never really imagine what it was like to be there as a 19-year-old boy, and here you hear all these different voices of war, so it becomes like a symphony, like a requiem. We wanted to do it like a concert, with variations on a theme of war and being in a war. It was not the point to follow a character on stage from beginning to end.

"It is about where we find liberation from other countries. With everyone talking, no-one knows who they are talking about. It was the same experience for these young men whichever country they came from."

In this way, Front is more of a dramatic collage than a play per se. Crucial to its creation alongside Perceval, Bellingen and Flemish dramaturg, Steven Heene, was composer Ferdinand Forsch, a German percussionist and sculptor who has crafted instruments out of scrap metal sourced at junkyards.

In Front, Forsch evokes the cacophony of battle using metal sheets in a way German industrial band Einsturzende Neubaten might.

"He is a sound artist," Bellingen says, "so the sound produced on the stage from steel and metal adds another layer to the collage."

One of the things Front's trio of adaptors discovered during their initial researches was the lack of written-down Belgian experiences of the First World War.

"The war took place in Belgium," she says, "but we did not find so much Flemish war literature. It was an occupied country, and Gent is 40 miles from the front. There is a museum, and they rebuilt the trenches there. You can see the craters in the landscape where the bombs dropped, and where thousands of people died.

"It is amazing to see how much the First World War was a part of people's daily lives. There were 40,000 dead in Belgium, but there were not so many Belgian soldiers fighting.

"The First World War did not take place in Germany, where the Second World War and the Holocaust are obviously still really important, but before this year, the First World War was not so much forgotten as never really talked about. People do remember it, and I think that wherever you are, we have a real duty to remember the horrors of it."

The response to Front since it premiered in Hamburg in March has been suitably humbling.

"I think people were really touched," says Bellingen. "Sometimes you can be playing to a thousand people, and it does not matter what is going on on stage, there is always someone coughing, but when we first did Front, it was really like being in church."

While there is a clear sensitivity in Germany about any work of art that deals with war, there is no sense in Front of Perceval's vision falling down on one side or the other.

"It is about the horror of war, says Bellingen. "In our play, there is no talking about good or bad sides. It is about young men who spent 18 months in the mud, and how wars are still going on. You can never say that enough."

Front, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Friday to Tuesday, August 26

l www.eif.co.uk

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