ON 28 JULY 1914 in Sarajevo, the Austrian Archduke Franz
Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated by a Serbian
nationalist, and the already smouldering hostilities between the
countries exploded. Austria had the backing of Germany, with which
it had a treaty, while Russia, France, and Great Britain supported
Serbia, with which they also had a treaty. Germany expected to
defeat France very quickly as it had done before in the
Franco-Prussian War, and decided to take a short cut through
neutral Belgium. When Belgium refused access, the Germans walked in
on 4 August. The small Belgian army was hastily supplemented with
untrained volunteers and conscripts, and the quiet green farmland
of Flanders became a grim battlefield. House, villages, and farms
were completely destroyed to dig trenches for the opposing armies,
with a no-man's land between.
The museums, the many war cemeteries, the Menin Gate, and the
daily sounding of the Last Post are a continual reminder of this
tragic event, and this year many arts events commemorate the
centenary of the outbreak of war. The renowned Belgian director
Frank Van Laecke, in collaboration with Studio 100 (the Belgian
equivalent of Disney), the composer Dirk Brosse, and the lyricist
Allard Blom have mounted a massive spectacular musical costing €9
million, and titled 14-18.
The venue is the huge 18,500m2 Nekkerhal in Mechelen, not far
from Ypres. Not only is there a cast of 150 actors, including more
than 100 extras, who play wounded, dying or attacking soldiers;
horses, guns, and wagons; but it is an unprecedented technical
achievement. Eleven sets built on movable platforms are controlled
by laser. Eight of them are several stages high, and weigh between
2.5 and five tons. The auditorium consistsof a tiered grandstand
mounted on 350 wheels and powered by 24 motors able to propel the
audience 150m forward almost into the particular scene being
Though it may seem frivolous to commemorate this sombre theme in
such a spectacular way, the story, though fictional, is based on
facts, and is about a group of young Belgian volunteer soldiers,
childhood friends, and is told with almost biblical simplicity.
From the moment when the idea was conceived three years ago, Van
Laecke and his team undertook research on the First World War. "It
was through reading letters from soldiers and the answers from
their friends and family that I got closer to the human story I
wanted to tell," Van Laecke says. "It is not only a story about
hardship. There is love, unconditional friendship, and the
compelling human ability to rise up from catastrophe."
The fact that the actors playing the parts are the age that the
real soldiers would have been and are actors who can sing rather
than singers who also act makes the story both convincing and
The Last Post is sounded at the beginning of the show, and the
narrator explains how the war started. The new recruits - Jan, a
married man, whose wife, Anna, is expecting their baby; his younger
brother, Kamiel, an aspiring musician, who is sick at the sight of
blood and hates fighting; their friends Fons, an under-confident,
bookish type of fellow; Albert, mainly responsible for coarse
jokes; and Deprez, who manipulates situations to help himself -
cheerfully expect the fighting to be over in a few weeks.
The bullying sergeant-major Dedecker orders them to give cover
while the locks are opened to flood the Yser plain and slow the
German advance. Kamiel refuses, Fons is wounded protecting him, and
spends some time in the army hospital, while Kamiel is
court-martialled and executed.
Deprez brings news that Jan's baby has been born, and smuggles
in plenty of beer for everyone, including the nurses, to get very
drunk. Jan crawls through German corpses in the trenches, killing a
German on the way, to see his new baby son. Albert is blinded and
poisoned by chlorine gas and dies. There is a peaceful moment at
Christmas, when Belgian, French, British, and German soldiers come
into no-man's land and sing "Silent Night" together in their own
languages; but, driven by the Generals, the fighting resumes on an
even more desperate level. Jan, protecting Fons, is killed. The war
ends: there is loud drunken singing, and Anna is left to care for
her small son who will grow up to be the right age for the Second
World War. Of the five friends, only Fons survives.
Despite the simple and perhaps obvious theme, there is a
powerful sense of Greek tragedy, since the drama adheres, within
reasonable dramatic licence, to the unities of time, place, and
action, using flashbacks instead of a chorus or messenger. We see
the boys as children cutting their hands to promise to be "blood
brothers"; the marriage of Anna and Jan; and the mother of Jan and
Kamiel and other families saying a tearful farewell to the
soldiers. There is also a feeling that in the same way as the Great
War took over everyone's life, the whole show is a huge machine in
control of the actors, who have to move from scene to scene quickly
to avoid being knocked out of the way by a tree or building.
The khaki uniforms are heavy and totally authentic; so there is
no colour from glamorous costumes, except for the wedding, when
bunting, balloons, lanterns, and colourful dresses come out. The
music written by Dirk Brosse, recorded by the Flemish Philharmonic
Orchestra, and sung live by the cast is magnificent.
Brosse is musical director of the Philadelphia Chamber
Orchestra, and has used different rhythms and drums, trumpets,
violins and every instrument in the orchestra to achieve a rousing
and emotional effect. The mainly Belgian audience of nearly 2000
came out using words like "wonderful", "amazing", "fantastic", and
An English cast joins the company in June to play once or twice
a week for the length of the run. It is hoped to continue until
Remembrance Day, provided audiences are sufficient.
No performances on Monday and Tuesday. Evening and
afternoon performances every day except Wednesday,
which is only an evening show. Thursday and Friday are for schools.
First English-speaking performance on 15 June.