When a pair of old, velvet, theatre curtains slowly, manually, painfully retract to reveal a man in soldier’s uniform swinging on a makeshift white, fluffy seat (we will assume this resembles heaven), you are not in for an evening of piercing and poignant theatre. The Good Soldier Schwejk, at the very least, does not disappoint in that regard.
Christine Edzard adapts Jaroslav Hašek’s traditional novel (initially translated by Grete Reiner) into a theatre script and directs a company of highly qualified actors. The script is uninspiring and simple, lacking complexity despite integrating classic text with modern warfare updates. Donald Rumsfeld; Alistair Campbell; George W. Bush; all get their time to shine when commenting on the state of today’s conflicts. The conclusion – we’ve learnt nothing about peace in the last hundred plus years. As certified idiot Schwejk (Alfie Stewart) himself puts it – clear, concise communication can prevent war.
The cleverness in Edzard’s script is that is interweaves time periods without feeling contrived and adds a commentary on the philosophy behind military service in general. Soldiers give their lives, fall down dead for whatever reason on behalf of whoever. Each side think they are pursuing truth and honesty, but on the ground, it doesn’t matter. You stick your bayonet in who your commanding officer tells you to.
Yet, in her direction, Edzard dilutes this message with an attempted comedy mimicry of a Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong style – scenes are purposefully not changed on time, backstage crew catch themselves on the wrong side of the curtain, props are misplaced so the story can’t be told. It’s farce without tact or precision. But perhaps it’s an excuse for a shoddy set, one where money has clearly been spent for it to look scrappy, but one that also falls apart at the seams. An intentional look of dishevelment is one thing – a lack of attention to detail is quite another.
The Good Soldier Schwejk, if nothing else, benefits from a company of overall strong and seasoned actors. If the modern world has learnt nothing from the wars of the twentieth century, the same can be said of the young performers from their older counterparts. Experience beats energy in this case – the likes of Michael Mears, Sean Gilder and Andrew Tiernan in their bit parts run rings around Schwejk (Stewart), the simpleton who gets better and more confident as the play progresses.
Top of the class here is Joe Armstrong – whether he plays senior army official Rudolf Lukas, or a lay-soldier tasked with capturing the battalion’s movements throughout the war for posterity, he instantly embodies any character that he takes on. A combination of light comedy to lift an otherwise dreary production with concentrated bouts of emotive sobriety give light and shade to the play’s highlight.
The Good Soldier Schwejk is more than just a stage play here – it’s a live film using Edzard’s script, compressing the original novel into a concentrated, more relevant and ideally more contemporary update. An interesting project, an uninteresting and at times uncomfortable piece of theatre.
Director: Christine Edzard
Producer: Olivier Stockman
Adapted from Jaroslav Hašek’s original novel (translation by Grete Reiner) of the same name
Music: Michel Sanvoisin
Design: Joachim Bergamin & Rebecca Osorio (lighting); Adrian Pickett & Stewart Morgan (sound)
Cast: Joe Armstrong; Kevin Brewer; Sean Gilder; Shona McWilliams; Michael Mears; Aaron Neil; Alfie Stewart; Andrew Tiernan; Michele Wade
Musicians: Junchi Deng; Hannah Morgan; Brendan Musk; Fred Thomas
The Good Soldier Schwejk plays at Sands Films Studios until 17 July 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.