Arnika – image by Tom Crooke/Bobbin Productions
Arnika by Théâtre Volière – Bridewell Theatre, London
The subject matter of Théâtre Volière’ Arnika is obscure but fascinating. Natasha Wood’s play is set in the Vosges during the early 1950s, the heart of Alsace. The region has a famous history of borderland uncertainty, see-sawing between France and Germany throughout the 20th century and, indeed, for centuries before. Doubt over its true identity led to suspicions over the allegiances of the Alsace people, with tragic consequences. When the Nazis annexed Alsace, its young men were forcibly enlisted in the Wehrmacht. Some, captured by the Russians, lingered in POW camps on the eastern front for years after the war had ended, the French government unenthusiastic about bringing home Nazi soldiers.
Arnika is a murder story set among the resentment and conflict of this messy situation. It is part of the Marchland season, an impressively ambitious month of European work themed around the blurred edges of identity. It brings thoughtful political theatre to the Bridewell, a great space in search of a programme, in a time when voices from Europe could not be more important. However, while the ambition of Borderland is admirable, in the case of Arnika it is also the play’s undoing.
The story is to some extent a conventional police investigation, pitting a haughty Parisian detective against a close-knit group of locals. A young man went missing during the war, escaping the Nazis while his two captured friends are also lost, somewhere out east, and unlikely to return. The tension is not so much about who killed him but why, and whether it was a crime at all. X both writes and directs, and her staging is spare and imaginative. Staged in a black box, the only decor is supplied by a set of grotesque folk masks, based on those used in Vosges villages at festival time. When not performing, the cast step to the sides and cover their faces, transformed into leering demons, neatly representing pervasive doubt over motives and identities. The staging is also physically inventive, with key characters held, tossed and carried by the masked cast in response to emotional states.
The directing style is risk-taking and memorable but the script, in contrast, is conventional and over-long. A 3 hour, 20 minute fringe production is unusual and, while length is not a problem in principle, it is requires a clear rationale. Here it feels unneccessary, the product of a script with a tendency to spell everything out. The audience is left with the feeling that the story could be more memorably told in half the time, with more of the characters’ feelings let to the imagination. The duration of the show also asks a great deal of a cast tasked with the stage time of a Lear or a Hamlet. Despite the time allocated to playing out the story the audience is, crucially left in some doubt not over what happened, but whether it mattered. The moral dilemma that haunts the characters seems only of limited significance.
These aspects are frustrating because Arnika is full of ideas and, in many ways, is the type of show so successfully promoted by the Summerhall venue during the Edinburgh Festival – a cultural bridge to the perspectives and performing styles of a European theatre we are in danger of forgetting, along with much else. Théâtre Volière need to strip it back and give their physical theatre skills room to breathe.