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Take this production as a revelation. If ever ambiguity is invited to dismantle the concrete, then the theatre company, Imitating the Dog will pioneer a work such as The Zero Hour to enthrall contemporary audiences into grappling with previously sure concepts of history and memory. Opening its national tour last Wednesday at Live at LICA, the multi-media show promised a great spectacle which was very nearly achieved to perfection.
Very few would have comprehensively understood the narrative in its entirety after the seamless jolts of scenes presented different versions of the lives of three couples ‘framed’ within a single historical event from the second world war. Better yet, there was the pervasive entity in the form of the Chinese lecturer and film director frequently interrupting the scenes by shouting “cut!” prompting the actors’ transition into the next version of the scene, all of which is captured on camera linked to simultaneous projection on screen. As pictured, the film and the theatrical performance are in synch, both of which fight over the viewer’s attention. Hovering over this realm is the magnificently haunting soundtrack by Jeremy Peyton Jones featuring all the elements of a remarkable cinematography friendly force. This is the show in a snapshot and remains like this throughout which on the aesthetic level is a viewing that struggles to develop after the first twenty minutes, as reported by some audience members. The audio-visual techniques deployed to provide the ‘frame’ for the narratives functioned as a meta-context for interpretation which proved its vital purpose to this theatrical challenge.
In a post-show discussion with Andrew Quick, who wrote and directed the show with Pete Brooks, he revealed the shows premise is to catch the actors within what is called ‘the machine’, whether it be the script, the narrative or the audio-visual techniques. He explains that “we wanted to explore how many narratives can be built from one single historical event” after introducing the original intention of setting the story in a train right at the beginning of this impressive two-year project. Critics ought to be sensitive to what ‘the machine’ meant not only to the spectators but to the artists who were unashamedly committed to the meticulous writing. Theatre craft really did take the usually larger proportion of the spotlight away from the actors this time and distributed it to the technicians, directors and designers to achieve what I thought to be a smoothly paced action pushed to its very limit of speed which the actors also recognised as the reason as to why they “did not do what actors are usually allowed to do” and that is to develop one single dramatic journey. With that in mind, their performances were excellently sustained and coped with the demands of the script which somewhat reflected of the human capacity to adapt in such extreme situations.
Rarely does a piece of theatre instigate deep thought through the originality of the convergence of the mimetic and the synthetic which refers back to the philosophy of art and philosophy itself as the search for the truth. Reality is the concern of film and theatre which The Zero Hour paradoxically relates and negates by having the actors wear microphones, which otherwise would not be seen in film. Furthermore are the moments in which the invisible wall cracked between the realities of filming and of performing upon the moment when the actors shift their gaze from the present in reaction to the director’s cuts. Memory is recurrent in all art forms especially when riddled with themes of violence and history such as the case here where the core genre is the murder mystery. Dramatic tension served to be the voice of collective sub-consciousness which allowed the observers of the artificial scenes to absorb the frequent whims of ideology in rebranded phrases with which we are already familiar. Were the Russians over sentimental? Are the British too polite? And the Germans calculating? Finally, are we close to discovering the true purpose of history?
What strikes me about reviewing the Zero Hour is that from now on, if any other work could inspire such an intellectual impact, then they must be doing something worth watching, for it cannot be emphasised enough that no amount of description can equate to the experience of watching this performance. I must address my concern that this new form of film and theatre obtain a term, thus allow me to coin the word ‘cineathrical’ to refer to the future works of whomever might attempt at Imitating the Dog.