Visualisations of War in Performance: A deep dive into the creation of NMT Automatics Theatre Company new play Tempus Fugit: Troy & Us
The act of going to the theatre is a sacred one offering escapism, entertainment and catharsis. Every now and again, however, a play has the ability to unlock hidden stories existing within our communities. These are the types of stories that challenge our perceptions of what it means to be human under extreme circumstances, what it means to love, fight, grieve and deal with trauma. Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of witnessing part of the development of one of these special plays, Tempus Fugit: Troy & Us, by NMT Automatics Theatre Company. As a company NMT Automatics are known for their visual and physical style of storytelling that explores classical texts with the intention of making them relevant for current audiences. In this instance, they have combined their unique style in response to the provocation visualising war and as a result, they have created a poignant and timely work that will speak to people both directly affected by war and those who have no tangible connection with it. More specifically, Tempus Fugit: Troy & Us, is a visceral representation of the mental and physical sacrifice and violence endured by individuals and their families once they have given their lives over to duty.
The main storyline of this play follows a modern-day military couple living and loving under the shadow of war paralleled and intertwined with the ancient Greek story of Andromache and Hector from Homer’s Iliad. After witnessing the latest R&D performance of the work in August at The Union Theatre, I have been compelled to find out more about what has been behind this creation. I recently sat down with co-creators and performers of the work Genevive Dunne and Jonathan D’Young (AKA Noah Young) and director Andres Velasquez to get further insight.
To begin with, I asked the company if they found this story or if it found them and like most things that are meant to be it very much seems like it found them. Initially developed in partnership with the British Museum for their Troy exhibition in 2020, after a series of somewhat serendipitous meetings the project has also become a collaboration with the Centre for the Public Understanding of Greek & Roman Drama and Alice König & Nicolas Wiater’s Visualising War project, all based at St Andrews University. Specific literature has also been a big influence on the work and includes Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, as well as Vietnam Wives by Aphrodite Matsakis and Jon Hesk’s publication on Sophocles’ Ajax. In conjunction with the extensive academic research undertaken by the company, they have also interviewed several current and ex-serving military members of the public and their family’s while Dramaturg Máirín O’Hagan has been an invaluable member of the company helping to contextualise the material.
Since the inaugural days of Tempus Fugit: Troy & Us, it has been this injection of a highly focused academic exploration of visualising war that has become one of its more fascinating features. Inquiry into questions raised from Alice König & Nicolas’s research on how war stories from different media, communities and historical periods shape and differentiate from each other and how they affect our attitudes to war, has allowed the project to exist beyond a political agenda. It invites more of a personal confrontation with the subject instead.
The plot of the play follows the relationship of Bea (Genevieve Dunne) and Alec (Jonathan D’Young). It begins with their meeting at a University Freshers Week where Bea is a passionate Classics student and Alec a history student with a future in the military in his sights. Their love quickly blossoms in a montage of happy memories and milestones, until, despite their evident unconditional bond, Alec’s army endeavours turn into a reality and the time comes for him to be deployed in Afghanistan for his first tour. As a consequence, Bea is forced to make a series of significant compromises on her own future and potential successes to live a life in support of her husband. It is at this point the play delves into its main commentary on the role military wives play in war through a visceral depiction of the anxiety, mental strain and mundane moments they have to experience. Manifestations of war plays out in the head of Bea who can only imagine what it is like for her husband while in the head of Alec, his experiences on the frontline, in his head, play on a constant loop even once he is able to return home. Their individual visualisations of war are therefore extremely different. As I mentioned previously, the classical Greek story of Andromache and Hector from Homers Illiad is also weaved into Bea and Alec’s storyline. It anchors the modern story into a human history of war. It is here where the convention of mask is used to morph Bea and Alec into their historical counterparts and to expose the hubris of man and their conflict between love and duty.
Although acknowledging that there are of course military husbands and same-sex couples existing in the demographic Bea and Alec represent, a conscious choice was made by the company to shine a light on the female side of war in a way that was more commonly experienced. This is in respect of their research and wanting to be true to the members of this community they interviewed. For this stage of the work, this is the story they want to tell. Furthermore, Andromache and Hector were a husband and wife dynamic present from the beginning of the development which has offered the exploration of a rare and truly human moment in classical literature. Despite them being nobility, their relationship, Dunne explains, is really just an everyday husband and wife relationship. When Andromache asks Hector not to go to war and to think about his son, he simply replies, no, I have to. The consequences of his decision for their family, as a result, are comparable to that of Bea and Alec.
Stylistically the work fluctuates between moments of text-based realism and explosions into a masterclass of physical storytelling and mask work drawn from the expertise Dunne, D’Young and Velasquez collectively possess. Their past experience includes work with internationally renowned companies 1927, Gecko Theatre, Theatre Re, Barefaced Greek, Dream Think Speak & The Tom Dale Dance Company. With such a nuanced and volatile subject matter in their hands, the trio, therefore, respect that words alone are not always enough to express what needs to be said and are able to use their physical skills to find an alternative way to do this. Velasquez suggests, in this current world where everything is more visual, audiences are able to absorb visual and physical expression with less fatigue than more text-heavy works. If this is the case, then other representations of trauma in the theatre could benefit from a similar approach so as to have more effect on an audience.
From the beginning of the play, there is a tension held in the space that grows stronger as the story evolves. This tension constantly transform from one of violence, to love and to dreamlike states. With a minimal set the performers are also able morph, shift and break the energy and dimensions of the space through object manipulation. The direction and performances waist no movement and from this efficiency (I guess almost military in itself), you will find yourself smiling one second then crying the next and sometimes both. Moments that depict the ancient couple through the convention of full face mask, give a feeling like ancient artefacts are coming to life. In a show that maintains a good pace, the masks somehow slows time down. There is a solace in history that can allow us to feel like we are part of a bigger story, one bigger than ourselves. Is embracing this something that can help us cope with trauma?
A controversial aspect of the story is the fact that Alec’s tour takes place in Afghanistan. Considering the current political situation over there at the moment, this can be seen as a direct response to questions and arguments for and against the human cost of British military involvement in the situation. However, the decision to make Alec’s tour take place in Afghanistan and not Iraq or somewhere else was made long before recent news and, therefore, unintentionally acts as a mirror to society rather than a political statement.
The intended audience for this work is another interesting aspect of it. COVID has of course played havoc with the companies intended touring schedule, however, plans to show this work in both military bases and conventional theatres has not changed. In fact, there has already been a lot of support pledged from current serving members of the military and interest from certain festivals. Although there are no specific dates coming up just yet, Tempus Fugit: Troy & Us will be making itself known again very soon so stay tuned!
There is no denying that the times we live in are disabling and for countless people around the world tormentors as war and natural disasters ravage communities constantly. Here in the Uk, generally speaking, we experience these realities as abstract stories streamed on our news feeds, in the papers or on TV. We are forced to project our own visualisations of violence onto the limited information we receive and these visualisations are informed often by Hollywood, literature and other forms of media. We are also generally doing this from the safety and warmth of home or the like. NMT Automatics Theatre Company and their partners are asking important questions like How modern dramatisations of war can uphold/distort reality and what is the responsibility involved in retelling war stories? Tempus Fugit: Troy & Us is more than a play, it is a deep dive into our individual relationship with war while helping us to understand the experiences of others.
For more information on NMT Automatics and to find out about their next performances visit: https://nmtautomatics.com/tempus-fugit-troy-us/
Or you can join the company for two Visualising War online workshops:
Have you ever been moved, fascinated, horrified or inspired by a war story from the past? How do historic war stories shape how we visualise conflict today? Please come and share your thoughts at two online events on 6th & 7th October! You can sign up here https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/…/from-achilles-to…/
You can discover more about König & Nicolas Wiater’s Visualising War project here: https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/visualising-war
Written by STEPHANIE OSZTREICHER for Pocketsized Theatre