Preview: Small War, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Natural Born Killers

Valentjin Dhaenens high-tech solo show Small War takes us deep into the psychology of human conflict, writes Mark Brown

“I’m a bit of a transvestite”, says Valentjin Dhaenens, the Flemish actor and theatre maker whose latest work Small War plays at the Traverse Theatre throughout next month’s Edinburgh Fringe. He is explaining one of the reasons why his high-tech, one-man show about the psychology and consequences of human conflict features him in the role of a female nurse from the First World War.

“It’s not like I’m a sexual transvestite and I’m trying to seduce people”, he adds. “Rather, it creates a strangeness. It’s a bit Frankenstein, to see this man playing a female nurse. I felt that this could be a beautiful way of portraying a broken woman.”

The woman is broken, spiritually, Dhaenens explains, by her experience of conflict. The inspiration for the character came from the actor’s research in the diaries of nurses who served during the Great War.

Valentijn Dhaenens plays a series of characters in Small War
Valentijn Dhaenens plays a series of characters in Small War

He was interested, in particular, by how quickly the nurses were transformed by the conflict. “A lot of the diaries I read were American. These nurses came over to Europe with a lot of optimism. They wanted to do good. However, within just a few weeks, they become totally cynical.”

Dhaenens created Small War ( which is a co-production between his Antwerp-based company SKaGeN, Richard Jordan Productions and Drum Theatre Plymouth) as a follow-up piece to his earlier solo work Big Mouth. That show, which is comprised entirely of famous speeches, most of them about war and conflict, played at Summerhall during the 2012 Fringe, and will be reprised, for three performances, at the Traverse next month.

With Small War, he wanted to focus on the victims of those speeches. The manner in which he does this is remarkable, from a technical point of view.

Although Dhaenens is playing the role of the nurse throughout, there are a series of other characters, all played by him and projected onto the stage in hologram. Indeed, such is the scale of the technological element, the piece won’t fit in the Traverse’s basement studio.  Consequently, the artist will be playing 18 performances in the theatre’s large main auditorium.

Whilst ostensibly set during the First World War, Small War draws upon many other conflicts. A set of interviews with American soldiers who served in the Vietnam War made particularly sobering reading.

“Most of them start to like to kill people. After killing someone for the first time, most of them look to have another kill.”

If the Vietnam testimony points towards a bleak conclusion about human nature, the current conflict in Gaza and Israel is no less troubling to Dhaenens. He visited Israel and the Occupied Territories 14 years ago, during the second Intifada, and is appalled by the events of recent weeks.

Despite his pacifism, the actor’s experience in the Occupied Territories led him to understand why so many young Palestinians are willing to join resistance movements which Israel and the West describe as “terrorist”.

“It’s terrible how the Palestinians are living in the Occupied Territories. When I was there I talked to students at a university in Palestine. If I had to take sides, I probably would have went with Hamas at the time.”

Small War is a monologue of Dhaenens’s making, and can be adapted to address current events. It will be no surprise, therefore, if we find a female nurse from World War One, played by a man, talking about the plight of the people of Gaza in 2014.

Small War plays at the Traverse Theatre, July 31 to August 24. Big Mouth plays the Traverse, August 19, 21 and 23. For more information, visit: traverse.co.uk

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 20, 2014

© Mark Brown

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