In these days of Brexit and Trump, knowing which country a person is from seems to be more and more relevant than before, so where are you from? I’m British, I have a friend who is Australian, another is American and so on. Simple, I have my identity and so do you. Now imagine that you were from an area of the Europe where your nationality has not just changed hands once but since 450 BC, has actually switched ‘locations’ seventeen times, and since 1900 has been seen a change of owner four times. That is the fate of Alsace, the location for Mick Wood’s new play Arnika, part of Théâtre Volière’s Marchland festival at the Bridewell Theatre.
1951 and in a village in a forest in the Vosges mountains of Alsace, there is tension in the air. The Mayor of the town, and local hotelier – Josef Seltz (Anthony Orme) – is getting ready for an unwelcome visitor. An anonymous letter has been sent to Paris about an event that occurred during the German occupation of the town in the Second World War. At that time, a young resistance fighter called Lucian disappeared and now, the method of his disappearance is being questioned. Young Commissaire Lamar (Tom Grace) has been sent to find out what happened the day Lucian disappeared. He first encounters Seltz’ daughter Melanie (Lily Hawkins) who seems to be the only person pleased to see him. As he starts his investigations, the older villagers, particularly Seltz and his best friend Auguste Fischer (Ben Worth) tell him that Lucian was captured and killed by the Gestapo on the same night as their own sons were rounded up and conscripted into the Waffen SS before being sent to the Russian Front from which they never returned. Despite it being seven years, Auguste’s wife – Lenel (Jessica Flood) – has never got over the loss of her son and dreams that one day he will return to be reunited with his parents and sister Arnika (Ruby Richardson). As Lamar continues his investigations, he becomes frustrated at the negativity and animosity he faces personally and as a representative of the Fourth Republic of France, from the Alsatians. Will he ever find the truth and does the world need the truth to come out?
Based on a true story Arnika was a bit of an enigma for me. Starting off as if it was a village show with the various roles being allocated by the story’s narrator (Eddie Toll or Foss Shepherd) and then in we went. Considering the subject matter and the gravity of the story, I have to say I found this folksy start a bit of a strange choice by Director Natasha Wood. The play has a minimal set and, when not playing their respective roles, the cast either stand outside the main performance area or don rather grotesque masks – full credit to Mike Ascough for those – giving them an anonymity to enable them to be scenery, other characters, anything they like really. This works quite well and means that a cast of only seven can bring a large show to life and fill the Bridewell’s stage nicely.
However, there is an issue with the play to my mind. It is too broad in scope. Along with the investigation, we have a village coming to terms with its actions in the war, mental health issues, potential love interests, even fatal diseases and a search for national identity. In order to cover all of this, the play was three hours long and, at times seemed to meander along with no real purpose. However, there are some moments of really superb writing. This is particularly true of Lamar’s interviews with the various people. There is one really superb scene where Lamar and Seltz are in the Mayor’s office both verbally and physically circling each other as Lamar tries to take the Mayor down a proverbial road that he doesn’t want to journey on. This is due in part to the acting of Tom Grace who is a perfect government functionary – though I would have liked to see him dressed more formally – who knows something is up and uses every linguistic and non-verbal skill at his disposal to find out what it is. The other part of the production I really liked was having the narrator/soldier/wolf. The role is shared by two actors and, on the night I saw the show, it was Eddie Toll playing the part. The character has to have an almost hypnotic stage presence that grabs and holds the audience as he provides background information and detail of the events that have occurred, and Eddie really does have that. Having him in a Waffen SS jacket added realism to the character and when he had his wolf head on, he really was an intimidating and slightly scary figure to see.
Overall, Arnika was a much better play than I was expecting. It’s not really a traditional ‘whodunit’ – you don’t need to be Hercule Poirot to work out pretty much what happened – but it is a nice psychological story which reminds the audience of a darker time where people did not always cover themselves with glory by their actions. It also makes the audience sit back and wonder what they would have done in similar circumstances. I do think that it could do with trimming and losing some of the elements not related to the overall investigation but on the whole, this complicated play was entertaining and enlightening.
Review by Terry Eastham
The world première of Arnika, a new play by Théâtre Volière. Set in 1951, residents of a small village in the Alsace mountains are trying to rebuild their lives after the Nazi occupation. Two families are struggling to live with a terrible secret, and when an official arrives to investigate the disappearance of a resistance operative, the ties of family and community rapidly unravel. Based on real events, Arnika explores the tragic choices forced on a border community trapped in a cycle of international vengeance.
Marchland, a new season of performance from Europe’s border regions, opens at London’s Bridewell Theatre this February. Audiences can look forward to 27 days of cultural events that respond to the crises of identity currently sweeping Europe.
This first edition of Marchland from Monday 5 February 2018 brings together artists in London from the Balkans, Hungary, France, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Marchland aims to rise above the current European battle over borders at The Bridewell Theatre – one of London’s hidden gems – with a series of plays, music performances, interdisciplinary events and talks
Cast/creative credits are:
WRITER: Mick Wood
DIRECTOR: Natasha Wood
PAUL: Eddie Toll
MÉLANIE/CHOREOGRAPHER: Lily Howkins
JOSEF: Anthony Orme
LENEL: Jessica Flood
LAMAR: Tom Grace
AUGUSTE: Ben Worth
ARNIKA: Ruby Richardson
FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY: Dan Styles
MASKS + PROPS: Miles Ascough
The Bridewell Theatre, 14 Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8EQ