Adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front tracks the fortunes of a small company of German soldiers fighting in the trenches during the First World War. The conceit is interesting: cultural and historical material about both World wars is ubiquitous, but it is largely concerned with the British (or Allied) experience. Director Giles Croft has chosen to avoid the quagmire of foreign accents and this is, on the face of it, a sensible decision. Unfortunately, the actors’ distinctive regional dialects and colloquial British phrases – ‘mate’, ‘geezer’ – somewhat dispel any sense of Germanity, and undermine the unconventional foreign insight.
The play’s commentary on the shared experience and fundamental humanity of war is interesting, if somewhat simplistic. The soldiers are, for the most part, portrayed as simple country folk. Their discussions about the abstract nature of war take it out of the political dimension and bring it down to a human level, but offer little new to our understanding of the horror of war. Names like Goethe and Nietzsche are tossed around by these farmers, but the play’s arguments seem to avoid shades of grey.
The acting is generally strong in this young ensemble piece, and there were some stellar individual performances – particularly an injured young recruit in one of the early battle scenes, intensely played by one of the impressive female performers. Unfortunately, the range of characters that each actor assumed had a tendency to become confusing, while the gender swapping mostly seemed unnecessary. Mark Dempsey, playing the narrator, Paul Baumer, is an unconvincing 17-year-old: unnaturally high-pitched and unconvincingly naïve, his youthful exuberance became wearing by the second act.
Production values are also something of a dichotomy. Costumes and props are simple, but effective. The spartan but complex set is used to good effect; the explosion and gun-fire sound effects are particularly impressive. As with the narrative though, the set’s complexity worked against it at times, as the large cast stumbled around the obstacle-ridden stage; scene changes were distracting, protracted affairs.
While there were some bursts of real theatrical invention, and the cast embraced the script with energy, I can’t get away from the sense that the company has simply stretched itself too far. Indeed, the adaptation itself seemed to be a project larger than the stage can handle: the script was constantly in search of a structured narrative, but in the end settled for a series of interesting, but stilted tableaux. Still, there is much here to like, even if the play’s central argument seems to fall a little short.
Until 25 February, Nottingham Playhouse