Theatre News

Rehearsals for A Farewell to Arms begin in Doncaster

Acclaimed theatre makers imitating the dog bring their unique vision to Hemmingway’s seminal novel

The rehearsals taking place near the end of July in the main theatre at Cast, Doncaster, were not like any others I have dropped in on. The play was A Farewell to Arms, adapted from the Ernest Hemingway novel and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks for imitating the dog, a company noted for an experimental approach to theatrical narrative and on-stage visuals.

imitating the dog in rehearsal for A Farewell to Arms at Cast Doncaster
imitating the dog in rehearsal for A Farewell to Arms at Cast Doncaster
© Ed Waring

Cast members were still book-bound, but all kinds of imaginative projections were playing round the set and detailed work was taking place on the transitions between different narrative forms. The process seemed in reverse order, but the answer proved quite simple, as Pete Brooks explained: the rehearsals as such start in September, this was something else: "The best way of thinking of this is a research and development week before rehearsals start, a week to work out what kind of thing we’re going to be doing so the video designers can prepare it – we’re just trying it out now because there’s not time in the rehearsal period to make material."

Rather disarmingly Pete understates the company’s technical processes as "quite complicated" – projection and video designer Simon Wainwright seems to regard them as pretty much run of the mill, all in a day’s work – and, confronted by the statement that this production adopts "a more open stage scenography" than previous ITD work, Pete explains it in simple layman’s terms: "In recent productions we’ve had a projection screen at the front so we’ve been projecting onto the proscenium, but here we’re projecting onto the set. Other productions have been a bit closed off, but in this one there’s no fourth wall."

The plot of Hemingway’s novel concerns the romance between American soldier Frederic Henry and English nurse Catherine Barkley on the Italian front during World War One – the Battle of Caporetto plays a major part in the narrative. An adaptation of A Farewell to Arms was staged soon after its publication in 1929, but was certainly very unlike imitating the dog’s take on the novel.

Not only do they have technical resources unheard of in 1930; they also have undertaken to adapt the whole novel, not every scene or every paragraph, of course, but the whole epic span of the story. How do you compress 300 pages of intense fiction into a mere 2 hours of stage time, the estimated running time for A Farewell to Arms? And how do you preserve the essence of Hemingway’s narrative style on stage? Andrew and Pete are both quick to point out that not only are there few stage adaptations of Hemingway, but none of his major novels have ever been turned into great films.

A difficult man to adapt, then…. Andrew and Pete overlap, completing each other’s explanations: "The play is about reading a novel, how you imagine the events in a novel. During the show the stage space clears itself up and by the last scene we’re in a fairly realistic set. The metaphor is that, when we read a book, it takes a few chapters before you fully realise the characters, you bring your own information to it. When you start reading A Farewell to Arms, at first you don’t even know who the narrator is. Then you realise he’s a man, he’s American, and gradually you build a picture. We’re trying in a way to reproduce that process."

The process depends on the conceit that a party of six break into a deserted villa that was converted into a hospital and, as they film, photograph and explore, they begin the narrative of Fred’s wartime romance, initially in the words of the novel – one of the other problems of adapting Hemingway is preserving his distinctive prose style. But who are these six people? Andrew tells me the original idea was to make them archaeologists (as in discovering Tutankhamun’s Tomb), but now they are simply the readers, discovering and exploring Hemingway’s novel.

As the evening progresses, the group of six take on the characters of the novel, Frederic individually, the others forming a versatile ensemble. And here is where imitating the dog’s quirky approach to realism asserts itself again. The ensemble includes two bi-lingual actors and the scenes between Italians will be played not in heavily-accented English, but in Italian. The scenes will be subtitled, I am assured, in an orthodox way, though I wouldn’t be surprised if we find words chasing each other around the set as well! Interestingly, the tour of A Farewell to Arms ends up in Italy in December. Before that rehearsals proper begin in September, prior to opening at co-producer the Dukes, Lancaster, in October.

Tour dates and venues as follows:

10 Oct – 25 October– The Dukes Lancaster

29 October – 1 November – Cast, Doncaster

4 – 8 November – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

13 -15 November – The Lowry, Salford Quays

19 – 22 November – Birmingham Repertory Theatre

26 – 29 November The Old Market, Brighton