'The Trench' – Les Enfants Terribles
Detailing the plight of a young man entombed inside a tunnel during World War One, ‘The Trench’ sees Les Enfants Terribles play out all the horrors and otherworldly epiphanies you might expect from such an ungodly experience. Five men, each of them dirty faced and panda-eyed in khaki uniforms and army boots, enact grisly scenes of life in the trenches, digging tunnels in the dark while an acoustic guitarist performs a moving live soundtrack.
Based on a true story and narrated in the third person by Bert, the protagonist (who describes his own strife as if he were an observer), ‘The Trench’ takes the approach of an epic poem, heavily dependent on lyrical descriptions. Occasionally you can’t hear what Bert is actually saying over the guitar and vocals, and some of the more booming sound effects also drown out his narration, but thankfully there are enough visual clues to ensure you never lose sense of things.
The set is made of wood and dirty khaki cloth, weaved into massive panels. Clever movement and placement of these panels and planks, which represent tunnels and darkness, ensures a genuine feeling of tunnel dwelling claustrophobia for the audience. The plot turns darker when Bert receives tragic news from home. A kind of Faustian “sells his soul to the devil” scenario ensues, guided by The Creature – a sizeable rod puppet made from ragged cloth, which has a hunched back, exposed ribcage, hoofed feet and a wrinkly head.
Operated by three men, this puppet has clawed, out-of-proportion hands, one of which is worn as a huge glove by the same actor who provides his gruff voice. The Creature is convincing as he hobbles along, cracking a toothy smile and, though at times this sinister puppet’s voice doesn’t quite match-up with his mouth movements, you believe in him.
Shadow puppets, created by Richard Mansfield, are not performed live but projected onto the set's panels to enhance the tale. Some are small and framed in circular spotlights, whereas others, such as a shadow puppet representing Bert’s unborn child, are huge and linger across the khaki panels, representing their greater significance.
As the play progresses, the actors' dirty make-up combines with sweat to improve on the illusion of toil. The lighting, designed by Paul Green, is spectacular and, combined with clever use of dry ice, helps immerse you into the candlelit nightmare.
At one point, Bert seems to become a puppet himself, walking upright along a wall through use of a concealed wire. Animations representing the horrors of the trench are projected beneath his feet (reminiscent of Picasso's 'Guernica') and dying men reach out to grab his ankles.
Most impressive is a huge, ghostly puppet with an animalistic skull. Like a giant, ripped bed sheet, its huge, bony hands are held up and animated by the cast like giant lollypops as the apparition swoops across the stage. ‘The Trench’ is a fine example of how puppetry can be used to explore psychological turmoil, using striking, demonic creations that are both believable and uncanny.
Les Enfants Terribles