Although some live performances managed to take place between the two lockdowns, in the main any theatrical output has been confined to our home screens for eight months now. This has bought the media of theatre and film closer together which, depending on your view, might be seen as either a good or a bad thing. Getting there well before the rest of us were Imitating The Dog, a theatre group which has always employed film and filmic techniques to put across their staged stories. The most challenging of their online productions is undoubtedly The Zero Hour where technique threatens to swamp narrative at almost every turn.
It is very difficult to say what this show is about because it is about so many things; the one thing that can definitely be said, is that it is not about clarity. Whereas other shows of theirs that I have viewed (Night Of The Living Dead – Remix, Heart Of Darkness) had an established work on which to base itself, The Zero Hour seems to have come solely from the minds of writer/directors Andrew Quick and Peter Brooks. The setting seems fairly definite, in fact (over?) detailed captioning specifies we are in Germany in 1945 at the moment the Nazis surrendered and World War 2 ended; at the same time it marks the time that the Cold War effectively began. However, there is more than one reality at play and varying theoretical alliances between Britain, Germany and Russia are portrayed. The German characters speak in German and the Russians in Russsian (there’s subtitling) as the various permutations are played out. There’s a love story, of sorts, and it’s a spy thriller, of sorts. There’s also a Chinese lecturer – only onscreen and speaking in English – who regularly interrupts these other narratives to tell us about some sort of supertrain that may, or may not, be a time travelling device …or it may just be a metaphor for the main action(s). Confused? You most definitely will be.
And yet…. there’s a kind of hypnotic rhythm to the whole piece which is both disturbing and exciting. The majority of the scenes are very short and played out as “takes” on a film set. A director and crew appearing in silhouette film the action which is shown on a huge screen surrounding the stage which, intriguingly, is set up like a film strip. Thus, the various levels meld and merge until we are not sure what is live and what is filmed. Permutations of the same scenes are played over and over again – these too reinforce the idea of a film being made. At the end of each scene the director cries “Cut” and a reset takes place before the next scene, which may be a retake of the same scene or a different take of a variation on the scene (still with me?) Although this becomes rather annoying after a while and fails to significantly develop the piece in any way, gradually a picture, or rather a series of pictures, emerges; however, I can’t say I found the narrative itself either compelling or enlightening. I found it particularly annoying to be getting into a scene only for it to be curtailed to keep reminding us that this was a stage show about making a film – just to add one more layer to the mix.
The cast of ten do well to stay on top of all this and I can only marvel that with so many switches and variations going on that they didn’t muddle themselves and go into the wrong sequence. The actual acting I found rather stilted but that may have been in homage to the style of the times in which the piece is ostensibly set. The muted designs successfully give an immediate post war feel to the piece and there is evocatively haunting piano underscoring from Jeremy Peyton Jones which lifts things to a different level. Although it is a witty piece it is short on humour and full of characters about whom I found it difficult to care – mostly because we see them in such brief bursts and there seems to be little room for development making them become rather one note. While the play is undoubtedly a technical triumph it does not hit home on an emotional level and if you are new to Imitating The Dog I would certainly not recommend starting with this piece which is bound to have a Marmite reaction. You will either regard it as a triumph of melding theatre and cinema or a pretentious load of old tosh. Who knows; following the form of this piece perhaps it’s both at the same time….or neither.
The Zero Hour is available on Imitating The Dog’s website – click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)