Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to imitating the dog’s artistic director Andrew Quick about the adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in the centenary year of World War One.
Imitating the Dog is a theatre company internationally-renowned for its unique blend of digital media, design and physical performance, all employed to tell stories and construct complex narratives such as those seen in The Zero Hour, Six Degrees Below the Horizon and Hotel Methuselah.
Andrew Quick, the artistic director, explains the original inspiration for choosing to adapt Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms for the stage: “With the World War One anniversary coming up we were wondering whether to tap into that interest but we didn’t want to do a traditional World War One play or adaptation.
“Then we suddenly remembered Ernest Hemingway’s great novel, A Farewell to Arms, that although set in World War One was much more than a World War One novel. So we got interested in that central love story and Hemingway as a writer. The great thing about the novel is this intense personal story told in this landscape of really brutal conflict, and a story not really talked about a great deal in the history of World War One.
“A lot of World War One novels are very much male worlds and what’s really interesting about A Farewell to Arms is the clash between a ‘female world’ (the hospital and the nurses) and the ‘male world’ of the army and bringing those two together has a really interesting dynamic. It’s got this really fantastic role for a woman, Catherine Barkley, who is the real heart of the novel and our adaptation.”
Because Hemingway’s previous novel, The Sun Also Rises, was written as a roman à clef, many readers at the time assumed that A Farewell to Arms was autobiographical. It is in fact partly based on Hemingway’s own experience as an ambulance driver from when he was a young man in the Italian campaigns working for the Red Cross.
The lead character Frederic Henry is a young American who is wounded and in his convalescence a romance blooms with British nurse Catherine Barkley. He then returns to the war and is forced, in effect, to defect, and under fear of execution the lovers run away to Switzerland. Quick affirms: “It’s an intense and personal story which is also about the death of innocence and hints at the war to come.”
It may seem a conflicted idea of a romantic novel coming from Hemingway given his personal chauvinism which bordered on misogyny. “He has a complicated relationship to women,” Quick admits. “He seemed to be drawn to strong women but at the same time he wasn’t particularly nice to them or faithful. And then there’s the wider political landscape of his attitude towards war, nationalism and how men identify their own ways of being with war, conflict and violence.”
The book has been made into a film twice: in 1932 with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, and in 1957 with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. “I’ve seen them both and they reflect the age that they’re made in. Hemingway didn’t like either adaptation and of the Cooper one said ‘it’s not my writing at all’. His great gift as a writer is his power of description and the film doesn’t use that so a great deal of his voice is lost. In our production we use these descriptions as a narrative throughout the piece, so we’re giving a lot of room to that descriptive power that he has.”
As ever, imitating the dog is challenging theatrical conventions in its adaptation: “Our take is that six people break into this old abandoned space which is probably haunted and used in World War One as a place of conflict and is now an abandoned hospital and they stage the book. We don’t know who they are, where they’ve come from or where they go to. They’re kind of like archaeologists. They make this novel come to life.
“When you read a book it takes quite a while before you start fleshing out all the landscapes and characters – at first they’re very 2D. Then you get sucked into the emotional power of the novel and that’s what we’re doing. Laura Hopkins’ set as the piece progresses sort of repairs itself and by the end it’s fully fleshed out – like the end of a book when you really relate to all the dynamics of the novel. Throughout, all the actors take on the narrative in the first person which creates this collective readership.”
This production also continues imitating the dog’s innovative use of digital media. “The projections bring to life an abandoned space and its unlit colour is a light grey so it’s almost abstract though you can see windows, doors and the floor. When the projection comes onto it, it’s almost like when you read a novel and you apply your imagination, you bring colour to the black and white words.”
Another aspect to the projections is in the use of maps. “When you’re reading a novel about another place, especially in my teenage years, I was always fascinated to know where this place was. So we were interested in the idea of how you create the landscape.”
The soundtrack by Jeremy Peyton-Jones utilises surround sound to add to the sensorial mix. Quick explains: “We wanted to capture the book’s sound world for the audience to experience in the theatre so the soundtrack and music is very important. It binds the narrative and links with the visual elements.”
But back to the theme again: Is Frederic a hero? “That’s a good question. He is very interested in heroic behaviour, about nobility, war, representing your country and fighting for a good cause. Slowly, over the arc of the novel, that starts to change. Part of that is the relationship of someone who is important to him, whereas in the first part of the novel the relationships are more abstract.
“When he falls in love that changes everything. So his heroism becomes less about those societal relationships, it becomes more personal, and then about survival. His romantic relationship to the war goes completely, he loses all faith in the machinery of war and invests totally in this idea of love.”
The consequences of the ‘war to end all wars’ are still with us, giving the piece a particularly contemporary relevance. “This relationship to war still continues – we still live in a very uncertain world about what our future might be, especially given what is happening in the Middle East. Hemingway is not a pacifist but he’s asking a fundamental question about what is the price of war.”
By Rich Jevons
Photos: Ed Waring
See http://www.imitatingthedog.co.uk/dates/ for tour dates including The Dukes in Lancaster, Cast in Doncaster, Contact in Manchester, and The Lowry, Salford.