Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 18 June, 2001

Even a dozen years into my reviewing career, I sometimes feel that I am unqualified for some aspects of the job. I still, for instance, feel cast adrift if I cannot follow theatrical proceedings from line to line, such as in foreign-language productions which supply printed synopses rather than surtitles. The less naturalistic the production, the greater my fuddlement. How conspicuously without a paddle must I have been, then, through much of The Battle, opening this year's East Goes West season at the Gate in Notting Hill, since it is not only a fringe-scale example of European "director's theatre" staged largely in Bulgarian, but has one sequence played almost entirely in darkness.

Actually, this scene, entitled "I Once Had A Good Comrade", is among the easiest of the 55-minute collection to follow, due partly to a certain amount of minor-key clowning as we watch four soldiers' lit cigarette ends engage in spatial ballet in the blackness, and partly to the fact that much of it is in English: director Dimitar Nedkov's cast consists of four Bulgarians and two Britons. It comes as a relief after its predecessor scene, "The Night Of The Long Knives", which is written as a duologue between two brothers, one of them a traitor, but staged as a monologue entirely in Bulgarian. What we are given is one man sitting on stage talking to himself; we cannot even tell whether he is adopting distinct voices for the two personae or just introducing a lot of vocal variety into the scene as a whole.

Heiner Müller's piece is concerned with the implosion of Nazi Germany: loyalists accuse or kill traitors, desperate not to be seen as treacherous themselves, starving soldiers decide to eat their weakest comrade, and so forth, presenting a series of individual moral choices. Nedkov's staging takes place on Alexander Smolianov's set of freely rotating steel frames the height of the stage, hung with sheets of brown paper which are gradually ripped off and used to stand for everything from a white sheet waved at the advancing Soviet army to the water in which a butcher drowns himself. Nedkov has an eye for dramatic images and presentations the final scene is recited (in English), stage directions and all, rather than acted, in a way which heightens rather than diminishing the tension it portrays but too often we (well, I at least) simply cannot see or hear enough of the actual material to perceive how text and staging interact.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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