The Singapore Arts Festival
The Esplanade, Theatre Studio, 16 June 2006
By Ang Song Ming
10 July 2006
The Great War is an epic about the First World War, in which modern weapons such as tanks, machine guns, flame-throwers, and poisonous gas were used for the first time. Hotel Modern has invented a theatre form called ‘live animation’ where the performers create “live” actions in front of the audience with beans, mud, smoke, bombs, brushes and parsley to create and manipulate miniature battlefields and other landscapes. Filmed by cameras and projected onto a movie screen, these miniature battlefields become hyper-realistic war scenes. A mini-camera runs through the trenches and peeks over the top. It is raining, snowing and smouldering. We see mustard gas-attacks and soldiers who search No-man’s Land in vain for their dead comrades. And then, a wounded landscape slowly recovers. The Great War addresses the terrible pain of war.
– Synopsis, The Great War, Programme Notes, Singapore Arts Festival 2006
I went to watch The Great War with my friend, Erwin, who lectures at Singapore Polytechnic a course on multimedia and animation. Owing to the ingenuity of the ‘live animation’, the applause at the end was understandably loud, probably as loud as the simulated machinegun firings, though not as deafening as the bomb explosions. It was this loud, and the sound designer, Arthur Sauer, was this precise in controlling every aspect of production, as were the rest of the cast.
Sauer’s sonic accompaniment bore the imprint of musique concrète and elektronische musik pioneers such as Tod Dockstader and Iannis Xenakis. His mode of operation was simple but effective: live Foley (1) effects mixed with an expertly recorded array of samples triggered live. An extremely elaborate set-up – involving an MPC 2000 sampler, an automated mixing unit, a MIDI keyboard, effect racks, cymbals, gongs, whistles, and other gadgets – imposed its physical presence. The audience could always visualise and attribute the sounds he was producing to the tool that he was using. Sauer avoided using the laptop, which conceals recorded sounds from their actual sources; he was conveying the unwritten rule of The Great War, which is to literally show hand – to show the audience how every sound and visual is crafted.
Visually, The Great War delivered the spectacle that the title promised. Props employed included parsley as trees, flour as snow, soldier figurines as real troops, and the combination of WD40s and lighters as flamethrowers. Erwin remarked to me that he would have gotten his students to come to the show, if he had known that the decidedly mundane props could muster a show of such high production value. When the audience was invited to take a tour of the stage at the end of the show to have a look at the props and equipment, Sauer caused a mini-scandal by revealing that the sound of the tank’s movement really came from a jade-green vibrator doing its work against a metal sheet.
Verisimilitude is an important aspect of Hotel Modern’s production, and the near-flawless, creative production of The Great War plays the crucial part in achieving it. Hotel Modern’s production is one that constantly reminds the viewer of the process of reproduction. As mentioned on the Hotel Modern website, “The audience is witness to the reconstruction of the landscapes of the Western Front on a miniature scale using sawdust, potting soil, rusty nails and parsley as trees. It rains from a plant moisturer [sic], it bombards from a gas-jet.(2) ” So the audience is often left marvelling at the likeness of the thoughtfully employed tactics in simulating different forms of warfare – there are the trenches, and also that of submarines, reproduced using a fish tank with muddied water.
The stage, delineated into several zones of action, parallels the multiple theatres in the First World War, where battles took place simultaneously on various fronts. Consequently, there is no centre on the stage, and multiple loci of action exist. One can read the fragmentation of the stage as conveying the psychological states of the soldiers and victims of war. The theme of fragmentation (blowing up) extends through Hotel Modern’s liberal use of explosions in scenes of war. In The Great War, ‘blowing up’ exists not just as explosions, but also as magnification – when the different animated scenes are projected onto the screen, everything produced on stage is magnified, blown up by the camera.
Moving from one part of the stage to another, the performers manipulate and highlight formal aspects of theatre/animation, such as props, camera, lighting, and sound. The stage is filled by four performers, not actors. Acting (playing the part) in the theatrical sense is replaced by acting (doing) in the physical sense. The emotional quality common to ‘playing the part’ could well be fully removed from The Great War, save the parts where two of the performers take turns to provide the voiceover narrations.
Innocence and Experience
Throughout The Great War, the audience’s senses are split between experience (aesthetic bombardment) and innocence (suspension of disbelief of the artificiality of the stage). The screen projection battles with the various micro-stages for the audience’s attention, stopping the audience from focusing and emotionally engaging with the narrative. Resultantly, Hotel Modern’s live animation calls attention primarily to the making of, i.e. the artifice, of the production.
“You! Hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!(3)” When T. S. Eliot confronts his reader in “The Waste Land”, he was aware that one could not experience the Great War without fighting in it. Seeing (reading) is a poor substitute for doing (fighting). Likewise, the audience is able to see the sights and even sounds of war through live animation, but nonetheless exists on a separate plane from experience.
A good war film, such as No Man’s Land, never leaves the audience happy. Neither does a good war poem like “The Waste Land”. When the audience rendered its sincere applause with all smiles at the end of the show, that sign of appreciation might have been better interpreted as something else.
(2) http://www.hotelmodern.nl/en/playgo.html – Hotel Modern
(3) “You! Hypocrite reader! – my likeness, – my brother!” Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Waste Land, ed. Michael North. New York: Norton, 2001.
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Ang Song Ming is a musician/sound artist and music writer.