Wednesday 7 October 2009

Beyond the Frontline - The Lowry, Salford

This is still in progress, but, well you can see what I've written so far if you like... [sorry it's still unedited and rambly]

Oh, and currently contains spoilers too...

On one level, the most impressive thing about Beyond the Frontline is its sheer scale. Essentially it’s a promenade, avant garde, requiem to the British Army with a cast of about 150. Intriguing, no?

The actual form of the piece is quite simple. The audience is led into a field tent nestled by the side of Salford’s imposing Lowry centre. In the dark, in driving rain, the nervous, grim expressions on the soldiers’ faces make for an unnervingly realistic atmosphere of tension. We are divided into numbered chairs and greeted by the commanding officer (Oliver Senton). In a rather neatly crafted speech he informs us of our role as inspectors, cleverly blurring the theatrical rules into briefing and backstory – the British Army deployed on our own streets as a counter-insurgency force.

Because Beyond the Frontline isn’t concerned about the rights and/or wrongs of any specific conflict, who “the enemy” are is left deliberately unclear (al Qaeda? The Continuity IRA? The Scottish?). While this is helpful to the show’s general theory – “in a civilised society when men and women lose their lives in the course of their duty, society should take a moment to pay tribute” – it suspends the action in a kind of moral void. Perhaps reflective of the state of soldiering. We don’t get to worry about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, only that the soldier’s duty is to carry out work that their country has asked them to do.

The format of the show is essentially another variation on the headphones and boxes formats of earlier shows Last Seen and Helium. Following the briefing, the audience is divided into four groups and each taken out into the plaza in front of the Lowry, where officers lecture us on the principles of this sort of military presence. We are shown checkpoints. People passing through the square have their papers checked by sentries, dozens of soldiers line the rooftops around the square, and can be seen in the windows of the theatre and outlet mall opposite. Searchlights sweep the rainswept paving. It’s all enjoyably apocalyptic and totalitarian, contrasting with the clipped but friendly, urbane tone of the officers. Suddenly there’s a massive explosion at the far end of the square. Our headsets crackle into life as suddenly dozens more soldiers are running across the square; there is gunfire; confusion; we hear orders being issued as we are rushed toward a set of nearby trucks.

Inside each truck is the next part of the show – essentially four dramatic monologues. Each audience only sees one monologue as part of their experience of the hour-long piece, however. Having nothing better to do in Salford, I went round all three of the evening’s performances (shows start at 7.00, 8.15 and 9.30) and managed to catch three of the four (apologies to Dom Fitch and John Hunter). It’d be helpful if these monologues had names (or if the programme made the credits a bit clearer – bloody ensemble efforts). Each monologue is an entirely separate commission from a different writer. As a result each is wildly different, and makes for a completely unique middle of the show, which in turn impacts on how one experiences the final segment.

Comparisons between the three pieces were fascinating. How each negotiated its place within the truck, how they differed in terms of style and content, and indeed in performance.

Joel Horwood’s piece, for example, cleverly morphed from being us, the audience, really in the back of the truck with a solider into a hallucinatory death rattle. Chris Thorpe’s piece, by contrast, made no such concessions to setting – immediately, once we were in the truck, we were in a room with Chris Thorpe, a upturned spotlight and a microphone.

Of the three I saw, the first – sat in a leaking truck, following driving rain in the square – suffered slightly for being seen with fifteen-odd sixth-formers who, while perfectly amenable, were also catching one another’s eyes and looking slightly self-conscious and disconcerted. It also sat mid-way between the other two pieces, neither naturalistic or totally frame-bursting. Instead, Dave Toole plays a kind of fragmentary ghost (by Matthew David Scott). An echo in the back of the truck. Perhaps from a previous tour of duty. His reflections intercut with static, crackle and snippets of dialogue through our headphones as this ghost’s final moments play out in a kind of feedback loop. It’s a grimly effective little piece, but perhaps slightly too fractured and clever to achieve either a real punch or a sense of intellectual vertigo. Which is precisely what the other two do, respectively.

Horwood’s piece is, in many ways, typical of his writing: touching recollections of adolescence, some excellent jokes, and a real emotional kick at the end. Simple but effective. It also had some new stuff: a disconcerting Donnie Darko-like imaginary best friend called Roof-Rack, who seemed to have horns and fur and some beautiful linked images of death and blood soaking into snow, or bandages. It also has an outstanding performance from Daniel Rigby who flips from friendly, chatty squaddie to Welsh youngster and back again...

Chris Thorpe’s text, by contrast, is a taut, angular bit of writing that hurtles at psychotic speed with chippy intensity from a near-Marxist-theory version of why bread is made in factories to the emotional breakdown of someone who designed computer software to make it easier for soldiers to kill people. Thorpe’s performance couples a flat accent and blunt mateyness to a piercing, unblinking stare and machine-gun delivery in the glare of stark white lighting. While it’s not exactly ‘moving’ in the sentimental sense of the word, it is perhaps all the more horrifying for its relentless pursuit of logic.

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