at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 8th February 2013
The first ten minutes of Imitating the Dog’s The Zero Hour seem incredibly promising. What looks like a safety curtain covers the front of the stage, until a shutter in the middle and about a third of the way up opens to reveal a window onto two individuals. Onto the safety curtain, a projection then appears of two people we are looking at (streamed live from two cameras on stage), so that the ‘real’ scene becomes an advent-calendar window in the larger picture (soon, two windows open either side of this central one, giving a widescreen window onto this world). Jeremy Peyton Jones’ cinematic music begins playing, and dates are shown of where and when we are – Berlin, 1945. Onto another curtain behind where the actors stand is projected an office backdrop. The scene ends almost as soon as it begins, and for the next ten minutes an enchanting sequence is played out as credits roll past.
That’s the opening. It’s engaging, innovative and beautifully executed. You get that tingly sensation at the back of your spine that you could be about to witness something really special.
Until you realise that this is pretty much all that happens for the next 80-odd minutes. Scene after scene after scene runs by, with a film director shouting “Action”, “Cut” and “Thank you” at the beginning and end of every take. The piece takes on a kind of Beckettian quality, for coupled with a hypnotic soundtrack the actual events of these scenes become very difficult to understand.
When it comes down to it, the show’s main fault lies in the actual content of Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks’ text, which – in a roundabout way – tells the story of Harry Kellerman (a spy in Berlin towards the end of the war) and various other Russians and Germans he comes into contact with. At its heart is a love story between Harry (Adam Nash) and his sweetheart Amy (Anna Wilson-Hall), but this is easily lost amidst the repetition and sprawling storyline.
The thing is, I think it would be hard enough to digest this story on its own even without the paraphernalia around it. But when we’re focussing on how the moving backdrop doesn’t actually make it look like the actors are walking, or trying to read the subtitles and captions, the staid, unimaginative dialogue is the last thing we want to focus on. The final scene seems to suggest things have been more complex than we’d previously imagined, but is difficult to make sense of.
It’s hard to tell how many things went wrong with cues during the performance I attended; I’m pretty certain at times that the dates and locations on the projection weren’t matching up with the scenes, though the lack of clarity in the text makes this hard to ascertain.
The central premise of the production is incredibly strong, and video designers Simon Wainwright and Andrew Crofts have done a rather incredible job, but it just hasn’t been used to its full potential; there’s so much more room for theatrical storytelling which is just never explored. At one point, for example, the cameras were accidentally left off so that all we could see was the widescreen window and the actors behind it, and for that moment it was easy to focus on what was happening. For the first time in the entirety of the piece, we had drama and knew what to look at.
For all its bells and whistles, The Zero Hour just never lives up to its promise, and the novelty soon wears thin. The fact that actors perform in a nether-zone between film and theatre also doesn’t help, and though the music is nice enough, it quickly begins to grate. I’m aware that earlier productions by Imitating the Dog employed similar techniques and it’s certainly an avenue which should be explored further, but for this particular play it just doesn’t quite work.