The Trench

Thu 18th April 2013


Joshua Phillips

at 00:03 on 19th Apr 2013



I like to imagine the writer of 'The Trench', Oliver Lansley, as the proverbial kid in a candy shop. In fact, it’s hard not to. 'The Trench' is a production that cannot keep still for long enough to work out what it is that it’s actually meant to be doing. It bounces from physical theatre to puppetry to musical in a series of sharp and jarring gear shifts that leaves one wondering not so much what will happen next, but rather, what trick the production will pull out of its near-inexhaustible bag of goodies. Oh, and there’s a harness involved somewhere, too. Can’t forget the harness.

Bert is a tunnel-digger, trapped in a collapsed tunnel beneath No-Man’s Land as the First World War rages above him. We watch his hallucinatory journey through the mud as he encounters demons and ghostly things and the spectre of a terrible loss.

Lansley’s script is a dense affair, the spoken word parts written in blank verse, peppered with archaisms and the occasional line from Wilfred Owen. But just because something is written in a meter with a regular pattern of stresses, that doesn’t mean that every other syllable has to be overemphasized. Barely a moment goes by without some kind of narration, all in the same kind of noisy monotone, with neither nuance nor texture.

The result is a deluge in which the audience-member has no respite, no place to rest and no time to interpret what goes on in front of her: rather, she must be carried along with the tide. If, in a piece of physical theatre, actions speak, then this play’s actions are drowned out by a sea of verbiage, and the production is so much the poorer for it.

Alongside this is a man who looks a little like a longer-haired Chris Martin, albeit encased in the same grime as the other on-stage soldiers. This man plays a guitar and sings, and sometimes does the two at the same time. It sounds a bit like Mumford and Sons meets a late-1970s Pink Floyd: sometimes there’s a saxophone, sometimes a cello, and on one occasion, an accordion. It feels it’s happening somewhere else, part of another show. It doesn’t really fit. It feels like what it is: a man with a guitar strumming away in the side-lines, whilst another play is performed on another part of the stage.

And this epitomises what is wrong with this play. It just doesn’t hold together. It just can’t work: there’s far too much of it. Too much talking; too much technology; too many things to be juggled. There are moments when the production does hang together, and in those few flashes of excellence, one can see a completely different side to the show, when one is truly affected, transported even, by what is on stage. Maybe we would see more of this were the production to try less, and achieve more.

However, it is this production that we are reviewing, and not a counterfactual one, not a thought experiment by a pernickety reviewer. And this production in its current incarnation just doesn’t work: it doesn’t know what to do with itself.


James Fennemore

at 00:22 on 19th Apr 2013



How can the terror, bloodshed, weakness and courage of the soldiers who fought in the First World War be recreated and explored on a contemporary stage? It is one of the toughest asks of a theatre company – to portray one of the extremist environments of human existence. ‘The Trench’ never manages to capture the right energy or emotional acuteness to be successful in this task. For all its attempted innovation and holistic stagecraft, the piece suffers from a frustratingly perpetual absence of feeling, or truth, or life.

During its hour running time, ‘The Trench’ treats us to puppetry, physical theatre, diegetic sound effects, strobe lighting, and occasional musical interludes. These techniques, however, almost never make a connection between performance and the powerful reality of the scenes they depict. Instead, they create an atmosphere of consistent alienation that is entirely at odds with the immersion that seems to be their target; they fall short, imprecise, unmoving.

The last production I saw that had a keen obsession for heightened physicality was Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Ubu Roi’; whilst Donnelan’s production exuded life and pent up muscular energy, Les Enfants Terribles’ seems to come from a different species altogether. The difference is in control and finesse – the performers’ bodies do not operate as honed instruments, but suffer from a vague cursoriness.

The most lively sections of ‘The Trench’ are those where the bodies of the actors are supposedly absent, where ghoulish puppets whirl and screech and gruffly probe the protagonist, whose quasi-allegorical quest through the trenches is the subject of Les Enfants’ piece. These puppets are nicely made, and, when the lighting and haze is right, become suitably impressive and frightening, the inhuman horrors of the battlefield.

Yet at its heart, the problem with ‘The Trench’ is the text. The spoken text is written in sing-songy iambs, which, fatally, are allowed to dominate above all else – metre, dull metre, overcomes the sense of what is being said. With the actors trying to stress every other syllable without fail, it’s no surprise that something is lost. The protagonist narrates himself in the third person; if even he is dissociated from his own character, how might we be expected to engage with him?

Perhaps the cast is tired of their own material, but this production now really seems to venture little further than going through its motions.

Last year, the final remaining veteran of the First World War, Mrs Florence Green, died at the age of 110. Every year, that iconic phrase ‘We will remember them’ shifts in its meaning. We are ceaselessly becoming more removed from the events being invoked. Unless pieces about this terrible war can recreate the feelings, emotions, and life of the horror of the trenches, we will never have an opportunity to truly remember those scenes with fresh eyes. Before we can remember we must be able to connect.



Dan Murphy; 19th Apr 2013; 17:03:56

Wow. Feel better for that do you, bile boy?

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