Review: The Great War

Hotel Modern’s miniaturised display of World War One’s brutality manages to convey the grand scale of the conflict’s tragedy.

A camera sits above blue bread crates, facing down and projecting the scene to a large screen at the rear of the stage. Our talented performers move objects in and out of view, keeping an eye on the screen themselves. Arthur Sauer busily works as a foley artist to the side of the stage, adding the show’s live soundtrack and effects throughout.

Obviously programmed to coincide with the centenary of the end of World War One, The Great War begins with a kitsch explainer of how the conflict began. It’s a necessarily light-hearted escapade. The horror is coming, so smile now while you still can, this sequence seems to say. Oversized props thump down onto a map of Europe and symbolic explanations of the complex alliances that dragged Europe into war.

The continent is inevitably thrown into turmoil, and the camera retreats with the performers to their larger stages of this moving diorama. The voiceover that previously cheerily described the lead up to war becomes as frenetic and harried as the music rising over it.

It’s a macro-to-micro shift as The Great War moves to recite primary documents, letters from soldiers who fought in the war, while scenes they describe are played out on the screen with great ingenuity, charm and horror. These voiceovers are crucially important to the show, providing real-life insight to the war’s experience, but in this performance they are sadly sometimes lost under the tumult of noise.

Like the miniaturised effects that were used so frequently in 20th century cinema, The Great War is able to use the narrow focus of its camcorder to examine small samples of dirt, fire, water and vegetation to convey a larger world that feels surprisingly real. The real-time foley work is impressive too, adding the squelch of boots, bird cries and hail of bullets where needed.

These scenes come mostly from the trenches on the Western Front, with all their muddy, meat-grinding horror accentuated by those soldiers’ letters, but occasionally from other sites of the war. One particular highlight is a maritime conflict, where plates, lamps and men float past the camera’s watery view, while the voiceover describes a profiteering photographer taking advantage of the unfolding disaster.

Once the performance concludes, audience members are invited onstage to more closely observe Hotel Modern’s clever rig of dirt, lights, figurines and sound-makers. The Great War brings us closer now to a tragedy that feels more and more distant as the years wear on.

The Great War was performed at the Dunstan Playhouse on Thursday, March 8, and continues there until March 11

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