World War One centenary events are taking many forms, Lift artistic director, Mark Ball and Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells’ six-day programme, After A War taking place at Battersea Arts Centre and on the Southbank probably being one of the more eclectic, comprising the work of 20 or more artists from around the world.
Hidden stories and responses to war and peace is their starting point. To what extent they have been successful is a moot point. As often with such events, there is almost too much to take in though it’s interesting to be reminded, for example, that BAC itself played many different roles in WW1 as a place where conscientious objectors were put on trial, as a recruitment centre, an air raid shelter and a meeting place for the Suffragettes’ anti-war campaigns.
Etchells’ own neon sign dominates BAC’s central hall, hanging over the main staircase like a lament. Taken from the words of a conscientious objector, Alfred Evans, it recalls the moment several of them refused to move on a parade ground: `it must have been an amazing sight’, Evans was quoted, `scattered motionless over the huge parade ground.’ Etchells’ simple neon brings it movingly into the present.
Elsewhere The Listening Post installation lures us up dark stairways to audio accounts of the home front such as an orchid grower desperate to save his son from the frontline. On another staircase a strange, dark object, like a large bomb sits, looms. In other rooms a journalist covering the Angolan war, Lara Pawson recounts experiences and a video and audio installation by Argentinian artist, Lola Arias talks to veterans of the Malvinas/Falkland War.
Of the `main events’ and the ones I was able to cram into one evening – a small fraction of the programme – I was most affected by Egyptian director Laila Soliman’s Whims of Freedom linking the Egyptian revolution of 1919 with today. Not so much a direct linkage as a dialogue between a latter-day lecturer talking about the `European’ WW1 and a singer constantly interrupting with songs from the earlier period, it was sung with the ferocity and emotion of the great Greek political singer, Maria Farandouri who sang songs of protest during Greece’s military junta. Winds of Freedom is a reminder of Egypt’s lost history and songs as mediums of popular feeling and revolution.
Two other performances intrigued, Belgium’s Pieter De Buysser’s Landscape and Skiproads – an immense daisy chain of a shaggy dog story delivered with a Ken Campbell mischief linking Europe’s Past through objects such as a glove, a cardboard box and a rocking horse.
Actors Touring Company also provided a provocative exercise in theatrical inter-activity, Blind Hamlet, through matching questions put by the recorded voice of Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour to five `volunteer’ audience members. A study in choices, like much in After A War, the connections to war are often elusive. The pushing of theatrical boundaries certainly is not.