The Sturm und Drang of the world’s biggest theatre show

With its multimillion-euro budget, cast of 140, computer-controlled set and shifting seats, the musical ‘14-18’ aims to take its audience to the heart of the first World War, so many of whose battles were fought in nearby Flanders fields

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

The Flemish call it Veertien- Achttien and describe it, in the lilt familiar from the subtitled television series Salamander, as a spektakel musical. To the rest of us it’s the world’s biggest theatre show.

Everything about 14-18 is enormous. The musical is being staged in a specially adapted building that could happily house a decent airport. It’s running for a year. It has a cast of 140. The set is made up of 11 gigantic pieces of computer-controlled kit that can represent, with a graceful turn and a change of lighting, a bridge, a village green and a ruined city.

All of which might lead you to suspect that if you travel to the pretty Flanders town of Mechelen, a 10-minute train ride from Brussels, to see 14-18, you can give up on the idea of theatrical immediacy or intimate storytelling. In fact the opposite is the case. The show takes its audience to the centre of the action on a 2,000-strong chunk of seating that moves backwards and forwards along a 15m track.

The sensation is uncanny. Your brain is telling you that you’re watching a cinema panning shot, but your body knows that it’s you doing the panning. The pace is stately. It’s not a fairground ride. But it’s not a gimmick, either. Or rather, it is a gimmick, but it works. There you are, sailing into the middle of a series of explosions, or towards a line of armed soldiers who are walking towards you, firing as they come. Real trucks clatter across the stage. Real horses canter right and left. With 14-18 you don’t just get the illusion of 3D action. You’re in the middle of it and can’t get off.

Which is exactly what happens to the characters in the story: Jan and Kamiel, who are brothers, and their young friends Fons and Albert, who become enmeshed in the murderous mess of the first World War. Through flashbacks we learn that Kamiel wants to be a musician. Fons is a bookworm, Albert a ladies man. When Jan goes to fight he leaves behind his pregnant wife, Anna.

“We follow four friends, each of whom has a small story in the big story of the war,” says Tijl Dauwe, the show’s assistant director. “You follow people in those four horrible years, and you see the changes in their characters and how they cope with the madness.”

Dauwe and his colleagues from the production company Studio 100 worked with academics from the Ypres museums on 14-18’s historical accuracy. There are school performances for children aged 10 and over; such has been the demand that there is a waiting list for tickets.

“It’s an important piece of history for Belgium, and we have to pass it on to the children. They have to know what happened,” says Free Souffriau, who plays Anna. Dauwe agrees. “It’s kind of a forgotten war, you know?” he says. “Here in Belgium we all have grandparents who survived the second World War. But the first . . . well. At school you go to museums and memorial sites, but you don’t really know how it felt to be living through this terrible time.”

Giant’s toyshop

Before the show begins we’re given a tour around the cavernous backstage area at the Mechelen Nekkerhal. It’s like a toyshop for a mad retro giant. We pass racks of guns, a pair of hospital beds, several bicycles, a chandelier and a vintage jeep with a mud-splashed windscreen. Hanging in immaculate rows are 350 numbered costumes. A wooden cart contains a small, fuzzy white body. I have a sneaky feel through the rough bars; it’s soft and feathery. A pretend chicken.

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