Innovative version of classic wartime love story

Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic Henry and Laura Atherton as Catherine Barkley - Photo by Ed Waring
Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic Henry and Laura Atherton as Catherine Barkley - Photo by Ed Waring
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Yorkshire’s Imitating the Dog has been described as a theatre company at the forefront of innovation. Nick Ahad met them in rehearsal.

In the summer, when the hot weather arrives, theatre audiences find other ways to entertain themselves, and those who run theatres use it as an opportunity to carry out maintenance work inside their buildings. 
 As one of the region’s newest venues, Cast in Doncaster didn’t have a lot of work to carry out this summer, but inside it was a hive of activity as the men behind Imitating the Dog were welcomed in to create their latest piece of theatre magic. Unusually, the company is working with a text that already exists – Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.

Pete Brooks, director/writer, Andrew Quick, writer/director and Simon Wainwright, composer and visual artist explained how this most individual of companies does what they do.

There seems to be a curious alchemy to the way the three of you create work.

SW: The three of us find that when we are in a space together we make something that we wouldn’t make in any other way. Writing, directing, technology, visuals, and it is stressful and messy at times and that’s what people who work with us would say.

So are you doing the thing that lots of directors describe as ‘playing’?

AQ: I think exploring is a better way of putting it. We are trying to find out what this book is doing and how it affects us and how we imagine its effect. We’re not staging the book. If you only had a four week period you could do that, you’d adapt it, stage it, but we’ve got another frame around it and the relationship between the frame and the book is the really fascinating bit and that is where Simon comes in because the frame, that really visual way of trying to make what we’re doing into a larger picture, is really interesting.

PB: There is a problem with play as a word – although we play in rehearsal process. There’s a certain amount of getting rid of psychic baggage. A lot of artists, when they create art – it’s whether you are singing blues or painting, there’s a certain amount of getting something out of your system.

AQ: We are a lot funnier than people think.

So why this story?

AQ: Part of it is pragmatic, part of it is an interest in Hemingway.

SW: It comes back a bit to themes. Two young people in a pretty extreme situation – war – and that’s been a theme in a lot of our work in the last few years.

PB: All of this is driven by personal things and this is really connected to previous work. We are connected to the world. With the First World War anniversary, we were looking at the way in which that was being commemorated and what attracted all of us.

We’re interested in this idea that the book isn’t really about the First World War, it’s about people, a symbolic novel about the fact that the future isn’t looking good.

About the fact that the First World War didn’t solve anything and actually there’s going to be another war soon. And intellectuals in the twenties were realising there was an inevitability to that idea. So instead of a commemoration or some sort of nostalgia fest, we saw it as a piece that speaks about our own generation, about having children, worrying about the future and realising that nothing has really been solved yet.

You really are dealing with big themes.

PB: Always. What else would you do? That’s what’s on offer when you go into these big spaces. In 1980 by Pina Bausch there’s a scene where there is an MC character and he says ‘tell me three things you’re worried about, three things you’re scared of’ and he comes to this German woman who says ‘Madness and Death’ and he says ‘that’s only two things’ and she says ‘isn’t that enough?’ There are only two questions. Who am I and how do I behave? Those are the only two questions in the world.

Are you proud of making the work on those big stages?

AQ: It’s a great opportunity. One of the things you dream about.

PB: I think we are very idealistic. We are extremely committed to making interesting work that is hardly ever very straightforward. For us I’m really pleased that companies are interested in our work and that’s really pleasing and important to us.

So how are you going about turning A Farewell to Arms, into a stage play?

PB: Normally we make original stories. We’re storytellers. When you make a show like this it’s working out how the story is actually put onto the stage, it’s about how you turn a chair into a nuclear submarine.

AQ: The Hunt for Red October the stage version

SW: I’d watch it.