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An epic odyssey into a world below the mud. Producer and Company Director James Seager on Les Enfants Terribles' 'The Trench'

[Photograph by Paul Blakemore]

James Seager is Les Enfants Terribles’ Producer and Company Director. He has fifteen years of experience in theatre, television and film. Involved with Les Enfants Terribles initially as an actor, he moved to directing and producing shows in 2005. Most recently he Directed The Terrible Infants at Wilton’s Music Hall and Alice’s Adventures Underground at The Vaults. Director of The Trench, James tells Run Riot why Les Enfants Terribles are bringing the show to London for the first time…

The Trench first premiered at the Edinburgh festival in 2012 and then toured a year later before returning again at the fringe in 2013. Since then it’s had two further incarnations and a successful trip to Norway, but the last show was in 2015. It has never had a London run and so one of my first thoughts was that we had to do it due to the huge positive response the show has continually received and take it to a larger audience. My focus was also always November 2018 and marking the centenary in a special way. But before that, why? Who and how? Let’s start at the beginning...

The “war to end all wars” has always been a passion of mine and always a subject I wanted us as a company to set one of our shows in. We very much wanted it to have a Les Enfants feel to it with puppets and live music and the combination of working with singer songwriter Alexander Wolfe and our long-time designer Sam Wyer really set the tone. It was also a turning point when Oliver Lansley, the writer, decided to write it as an epic poem and then the discovery of the real-life story of William Hackett. It is very interesting to note that only over the last 20 years has more emerged about the actual tunnellers and their roles during the war, so it seemed perfect (although challenging) to tell a story about them and to focus it on this one man.

William Hackett was the only tunneller to be awarded the Victoria Cross for an act of extreme bravery and selflessness. After being rejected three times by the York and Lancaster Regiment for being too old, Hackett enlisted in the British Army on 25 October 1915, despite having been diagnosed with a heart condition.

On the morning of 22 June 1916, Sapper William Hackett and four other miners of 254 Tunnelling Company were driving a tunnel towards the enemy lines below the cratered surface of the Givenchy sector of northern France. At 2.50am the explosion of a heavy German mine (the Red Dragon) blew in 25 feet of the tunnel, cutting the five men off from the world above. On the surface, a rescue party was immediately organised. After two days of digging, an escape hole was formed through the fallen earth and broken timbers, and the tunnellers contacted. William Hackett helped three men to safety. However, he refused to leave until the last man, seriously injured 22-year-old Thomas Collins of the Swansea Pals (14th Battalion, the Welsh Regiment), was rescued. His words were said to be, “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first”. Eventually the gallery collapsed again, entombing the two men. Both still lie beneath the fields of Givenchy today.

It was this particular act of bravery and sacrifice that inspired Bert’s journey. An epic odyssey into a world below the mud. And although The Trench is full of fantasy, the horrors these men experienced were all too real.

What also Influenced us was the film “Pans Labyrinth” in its way it brilliantly blended stark war reality with dark fantasy and also Epic Greek tales such as “Orpheus in the Underworld” but when bringing back a show we always have to ask; why?

Why is the First World War so evocative and why is it a period in time we should “lest forget?”

For me it was a war of contradictions showcasing a strange dichotomy of old and new. On the one hand it was the first war to fully use machine guns, chemical weapons, aeroplanes, tanks and submarines but at the same time it was almost medieval with opposing trenches built literally 60 metres apart and then slowly advancing to the enemy lines for (if you made it) hand to hand bayonet warfare.

[Photograph by Paul Blakemore]

Visiting the battlefields and cemeteries for the first time when I was 12 had a big impact on me and at the time there was still a direct link to the people who had experienced it as 30 years ago there were still some soldiers in their 90’s who had fought. Now however, that is not the case, so we lose our connection to that war and it somehow seems further ago than before. This is why it’s still important to remember that we would have all been affected had we had the misfortune to have been born then - conscription, loss, trauma - and crucially on both sides and not just at the front but at home too. We have yet to take the show to Germany, but we always say this story could also be told from both perspectives; the “sides” weren’t as simple as how one could view the Second World War.

So, in bringing The Trench back we have a responsibility for remembrance but also as theatre makers look at ways to expand and improve where we can whilst at the same time remaining faithful to its original vision which proved so popular when first performed.

We’ve slowly developed the show since its inception gradually improving it with each performance: more music, design and ideas.

What I am also very proud of is how the show plays to a very varied and wide demographic. This is not your “standard First World War show” as we have goblins, demons and fantastical horror but at the same time it has that grounding to have comparisons with work such as more traditional War plays like “Journey’s End.” This is one of the reasons I think, for its broad appeal as we have people of all ages really going for it - I always secretly enjoy when our goblin character first emerges to see some “traditional theatre” goers sit up slightly!

We’ve added a new section, a few new cast members and a very exciting new puppet but in essence it’s the same show that has proved so popular in the past and I’m extremely excited about bringing it to a London audience for the first time.

The songs by Alexander Wolfe are phenomenal, the design by Sam Wyer incredible and the script by Oliver Lansley evocative and beautiful. This, quite frankly, makes my life directing it so much easier!

We dedicate this performance to the many who lost their lives in this terrible conflict, and we hope the lessons learnt from this brutal episode of human history are not soon forgotten.

But for me personally the show at the end of the day is actually all about hope. Hope when all is lost, hope in the face of fear and hope to strive for peace. I personally hope, that despite its bleak setting and context, it truly inspires, moves you and makes us all remember.

The Trench runs at Southwark Playhouse from 10 October – 17 November 2018.
www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or 020 7407 0234


[Photograph by Paul Blakemore]

[Photograph by Paul Blakemore]

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