SmallWaR: sustained passages of theatrical brilliance

Check out the texture of this piece. (In Vancouver, SmallWaR is being performed in English).

There are passages in SmallWaR that are as exquisite as anything I’ve seen. The opening is a stunner.

Valentijn Dhaenens, the Belgian artist who created SmallWaR, also performs it by himself—although he is fragmented. When we first see him fully lit, he is dressed as a female military nurse circa WWI. She pushes a hospital bed onstage and, upright on that bed, there’s a video screen on which we see Dhaenens again—as a man this time, a soldier. The way the video is framed, his torso is truncated. In voiceover, the soldier wonders why he can’t see or hear and why his legs are so light.

Then a phone rings and the soldier wonders why nobody is answering it. A telephone appears on a screen that takes up the entire stage. A spirit rises from the soldier’s image, then transfers full-bodied to the screen, walks across the stage, and answers the ringing phone. The soldier talks to his sweetheart. She tells him she doesn’t want him go to war, but he says he must fight for democracy.

This theatricalization of the soldier’s internal state is dazzling. It’s also heartbreakingly intimate. “Here lies your brother,” says the nurse. “Here lies your best friend. Here you lie.”

Part of what makes this so powerful is the austerity with which it’s presented. The artistic execution is sophisticated but the artistic vocabulary is deliberately limited. We see the live actor, the video soldier, and his bluish ghosts. Almost all we hear is Dhaenens’s voice—and what an instrument that is. He sings, often in multiple harmonies with himself. What he sings is often surprising: “There was a boy/A very strange, enchanted boy…”

SmallWaR keeps delivering knockout moments of visual poetry: the nurse reaches towards the video soldier and her hand appears inside the image to rest on his chest.

SmallWaR doesn’t entirely live up to its promise, however. As the show progresses, material that had been affectingly physical turns heady as Dhaenens forsakes the soldier’s immediate experience to deliver a dissertation on the nature of war. One of the wraiths becomes Attila the Hun and intones a speech to his troops, for instance. There are arguments about the beauty of war and a discussion about the impulse to violence. There’s a less then credible evocation of PTSD.

The beginning of SmallWaR is so thrilling that it’s disappointing to feel let down by it. But we’re never completely abandoned: SmallWaR is never less than an exemplar of vision and skill.

And its presence in Vancouver is more evidence of the programming chutzpah of Heather Redfern, who is the executive director of The Cultch. SmallWaR is part of an initiative called the Ceasefire Series. (The other shows in that line-up are The Believers Are But Brothers, which I highly recommend, and Three Winters, which I’ll see tonight.) Both shows I’ve seen so far have been superbly crafted and intelligent meditations on war and violence—far removed from the sentimental and heroic war narratives that usually saturate Canadian culture around Remembrance Day.

SMALLWAR By Valentijn Dhaenens. Produced by SKaGeN, Richard Jordan Productions, and Theatre Royal Plymouth and presented by The Cultch. At the York Theatre on Wednesday, November 7.  Continues until November 11.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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