I was back at the Arcola at the end of last week and, once again, I found myself overcompensating for previous lateness incidents at this venue by arriving unnecessarily early. I got there a good hour before the start of the show and entered the bar only to find that the usual scattering of tables had been swept aside and replaced with ladders, lots of ladders. Interesting, I thought, there is clearly some Punchdrunk-style embracive use of the venue’s public spaces afoot here, but, no, it turned out the ladders were being used merely for a spot of (very) last minute light bulb tinkering and, as more people started to arrive, a rather anxious looking chap quickly reinstated the tables as I availed myself of the first of the evening’s glasses of (no doubt, organic, fair trade and carbon neutral) Rioja.
The Living Unknown Soldier, the production currently occupying the Arcola’s main space, is based on a French play, Le Soldat Inconnu Vivant by Jean-Yves Naour. It’s a play concerned with memory and loss. A soldier is found wandering at the end of the First World War. He is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who he is. He doesn’t know his name, the whereabouts of his family or even who he was fighting for. He is a blank, an absence, a man lost. The doctor at the institution that takes him in makes it his mission to discover the man’s identity, to find his family. To do this he gets a journalist to write a piece about the man’s situation. But, after the publication of the story in the newspapers, the doctor is flooded with families, with desperate people, longing to somehow turn this man without a past into their lost son, brother or husband.
The bare bones of the narrative are fascinating and incredibly poignant, and I thought the decision to have each member of the company play the soldier at some point during the production was inspired, emphasising his lack of identity, his role as non-person and, at the same time showing how this same void of personality makes him the ideal vessel for the hopes of these people, these families, whose loved ones are missing – and may forever be missing. But while the story itself was compelling, some of the devised elements that the production used in the telling felt rather forced; there was often too much going on, too much noise, too much ‘theatre.’ There was a strong performance from Tony Guilfoyle at the centre of things, as the doctor who devotes years to searching for the soldier’s relatives, but his naturalistic approach often seemed to conflict with other elements of the play and the piece as a whole felt rather disjointed. However, despite all that, I think this is one I will remember for longer than some of the more polished productions I’ve seen of late.