A dense, complex and astonishingly accomplished work, the spectacular theatrical vision of The War is marred by a deep seam of misogyny.
Drawing on sources including The Illiad, Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Nikolai Gumilyov’s Notes of a Cavalryman, director Vladimir Pankov applies his own soundrama technique to create a visually and aurally dazzling production. Combining acrobatics, opera and prose with a touch of Sondheim, the piece tells the story of British painter George and his inevitable march towards death precipitated by the First World War. He is mourned by Vladimir, his close friend, and members of his family.
From Belle Epoque Paris to the grim trenches, Pankov offers dense visuals and the cast give incredible performances, particularly Pavel Akimikin as George. Women, however, do not fare well in this war. All the soberly dressed field nurses are dubbed ‘tarts’, while stripping for the benefit of the soldiers. George and his wife, Betsy, have what can most kindly be called violent sex, and at worst rape, while she happily exclaims that he is still an excellent lover. Betsy and Anna, Vladimir’s wife, have a catfight in a pile of dead bodies. The pile of dead bodies is symbolic, the catfight, sadly, is not.
Betsy tells us that women long to give birth. Anna tells us that women go to war to love soldiers. Men, it seems, are allowed to be complex, women are reduced to whores and mothers, although at least, unlike in the Pleasance’s Forgotten Voices, the desperate circumstances leading to prostitution during war are not treated as a joke. Ironically, for a far less reductive view of wartime nurses, SmallWar at the Traverse, an all-male production, offers considerably more empathy.
I could not in good conscience give less than three stars to a production this good, but it’s time we stop accepting casual, ingrained misogyny. Artists must do better, and audiences must rebuke them when they do not.
Words: Caroline Whitham
The War, King’s Theatre, Aug 9 – 11, 20:00