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Human story of the trenches

23 May 2014

Katy Hounsell Robert sees a vast centenary musical in Flanders

Holy night: above: the Christmas-cease-fire scene in the First World War musical 14-18; foot of page: the pre-war wedding scene

Holy night: above: the Christmas-cease-fire scene in the First World War musical 14-18; foot of page: the pre-war wedding scene

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 acted.

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 moving.

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 "breathtaking".

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.


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