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A Farewell to Arms

Published by: Kirstie Niland on 26th Oct 2014 | View all blogs by Kirstie Niland
The Dukes Lancaster

“Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others ... But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”

Frederic Henry, an American Lieutenant and ambulance driver for the Italian army, and English VAD nurse Catherine Barkley lie entangled in the safety of each other’s arms on the stage at The Dukes, unaware of the tragedy that awaits them. The chemistry between them is palpable.


Imitating the Dog’s first UK adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, based on the writer’s own experiences of the First World War, is both beautiful and brutal. The innovative use of video projection and geographical mapping breathes life into the set, featuring real WW1 footage, text from the novel and close-ups of the actors’ facial expressions to bring extra depth to the performance.

This clever projection combined with the ghostly, almost transparent set and evocative music draws the audience tightly into the drama. At times the sound effects are loud and violent, so the sound of mortar bombs as the Italians retreat jolts you in your seat. And when the rain pelts down you are reminded of Catherine’s fear of the rain and of losing Frederic’s love.

The play begins with the cast climbing through a hole in the wall of a disused hospital, as Jude Monk McGowan and Laura Atherton take their places to begin the story of Frederic and Catherine’s love affair. The other four cast members watch or operate cameras, filming scenes in between joining the set as the other main characters.

As in the novel, the perfectly groomed Frederic narrates, except here he does it to camera. McGowan is spell-binding as he tells the story objectively, then goes back into the action, allowing other cast members to continue the narration. This reflects Hemingway’s shift to other absent narrators within the novel.


The cast members move effortlessly between their roles and stay with us every step of the way. Even costume changes take place on stage, and the documentary style technique is extremely powerful. This production is like a pop-up book, the characters springing up amidst the sights and sounds of the text as they are brought achingly to life. In the final scene Frederic asks the camera operators to leave. They cover their cameras up and close the hole they originally entered, leaving an intact hospital wall in its place. It’s almost as though we are now watching the ghost of Frederic as he spends his final agonising moments with Catherine after she has given birth to their stillborn son before dying herself.

Every scene brings the unexpected, and the Italian chapters are explosively delivered with passion and subtitles. Each of the cast is so adept at switching characters, accents and languages you are mesmerised throughout. However the most compulsive part for me is the chemistry between McGowan and Atherton. From their flirtation that begins as a distraction - Catherine from the death of her fiancé, Frederic from the war - to the all consuming, obsessive love that binds them, it is all so raw and realistic.

When Frederic deserts to Switzerland, and Catherine, by then pregnant, goes with him, their strong portrayal of a couple’s loss of innocence and their total reliance upon each other feels at times too intimate to watch. Atherton’s performance in labour is frighteningly real, and the final scenes between them are incredibly emotional as the impending doom that haunts them is realised. In Frederic’s words: “This was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other.”

Adapted and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brook, A Farewell to Arms is a brilliant fusion of digital and theatrical techniques which does justice to Hemingway’s novel and pulls you urgently into its pages.

This is a highly emotional depiction of the contrasting experiences of men and women during the First World War, with Frederic and Catherine at its heart, becoming completely as one before tragedy tears them apart.

Not for the faint-hearted but an absolute must-see.

Photographs courtesy of Ed Waring

A Farewell to Arms premiered at The Dukes in Lancaster and continues its tour at Cast, Doncaster from October 29-November 1; the New Wolsey, Ipswich from November 4-8; the Lowry, Salford Quays from November 13-15; Birmingham Repertory Theatre from November 19-22 and The Old Market, Brighton from November 26-29. The production tours Italy from December 2-11.



  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 3 years ago
    Thanks, Kirstie. Lovely review for a hard hitting production.
  • Kirstie Niland
    by Kirstie Niland 3 years ago
    It was really hard-hitting. I saw it described on Twitter as "like walking through the book" and it is. An excellent adaptation.
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