Walking into Hotel Modern's performance of The Great War, one cannot possibly foresee how powerful miniature objects can be in transmitting the emotional and physical experience of being in a war, especially one that wiped out entire villages and cities in Europe.
The live audio-visual performance was presented at Falaki Theatre on Tuesday evening (with another performance on Wednesday 17 April) as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival's performing arts programme.
With a relatively big turn-out for the show, one enters the theatre, and finds a non-conventional set on each corner of the stage with a screen at the top. At the start of The Great War, the performers ask the audience to turn off their mobile phones, as it can affect their complicated equipment.
From there, Hotel Modern take their audience on a journey back to the start of the war in 1914, projected on the screen, with a map, seemingly showing European borders at the time, several miniature objects such as ships, trains, gloves, and even leaders being moved by the actors on stage. Simultaneously, a live narration is made with very impressive story telling skills, jumping from one emotion to the next as they give a crash-course on the start of the war, the countries involved, accompanied by Arthur Sauer using homemade props, instruments and equipment to project the sound.
Later, the performance moves from the centre of the stage to the corners, using the same approach to tell moving stories of people affected by the war, including soldiers, young people, farmers and women.
Hotel Modern's Herman Halle, who is behind the concept, told Ahram Online after the performance that all the stories are real episodes from the war. The group designed the concept and story of the war from published letters, and journals of people who went through the war.
The power of the stories, combined with intricate details of the miniature objects, and how real they look on the screen, offer the audience a truly unique experience. The live sound installation plays an indispensible role in telling the stories; perfectly synchronised with the movements and sounds coming from Sauer and sometimes taking a life of its own.
The experience Hotel Modern manages to create is diverse and truly original. While looking at the screen one feels one is almost watching a documentary on World War I. However, when one's eye slightly slips to another corner of the stage one can see the performers running around, switching cameras, changing the landscapes and creating this alternate reality live on stage. This dimension between what seems real, and being able to witness how it is created, poses questions even beyond the theme of the performance, on critical thinking, and seeing beyond the norm.
Even though the show is tied to the First World War, it really goes beyond this. The performance brings audiences the stories and emotions of any war: fear, anger, hatred, losing a sense of humanity, and despair.
The performance ends on a positive note with a plant growing out of the dust and crumbling while the sun comes up.
After the performance, Hotel Modern invited the audience onto the stage to see the set for themselves, and get a sense of the scales and the equipment involved. Helle said the group had been working together for several years using these techniques in performances. They settled on the theme of World War I as it allowed them to be creative with landscapes and people and tell a moving and captivating story.
While the performance was impressive, there was a technical issue with the Arabic subtitling at the top of the screen. Some of the subtitles, if there were more than two lines, would not appear at the top. This would be frustrating not only for non-English speakers, but also for non-native English speakers, as with the intensity of the play, and the unfamiliar accent of the story-teller, it would help the audience to have an option to read their native tongue.All in all, Hotel Modern's The Great War succeeded in moving audiences, showing the appalling nature of war, and at the same time presenting a novel model for performing arts to the Cairene crowd.
Wednesday 17 April at 8pm
Falaki Theater, 24 El-Falaki Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, American University in Cairo (Downtown Campus), Cairo