Les Enfants Terribles and The Trench

In March, Les Enfants Terribles’ kickstart their tour of The Trench, supported by house. We asked Oliver Lansley, the company’s co-director and author of The Trench, to write a blog for us about forming their company and creating The Trench:

I set up Les Enfants Terribles in 2002. I established the company with our first production Steven Berkoff’s West. My background was as an actor and like a lot of people I became frustrated in having to rely on other people to be able to create theatre. I had recently worked with a director on a production of Berkoff’s ‘Greek’ which had been a great success and transferred to the Riverside Studios and we were keen to work together again. We decided ‘West’ would be a perfect project but we had no one to produce it for us so I decided to give it a go myself.

I had no idea what I was doing, no money, nothing; I just begged, borrowed (and stole) my way through. It was a huge undertaking – a cast of about 12, a Jazz band, a troupe of dancers and a giant glitter ball – it was what you might call a baptism of fire (it’s no coincidence our next piece was a one man show!).We performed it at a great little place in the Docklands called The Space and somehow sold out our run. From there the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh heard about it. They had had a show drop out with two weeks to go and so they called us, offered us the slot and we took it. That was my first experience of the Fringe and we’ve been back ever since. The rest, as they say, is history…

As Artistic Director I’m directly involved in all aspects of the company’s output. The producing, directing and general over-seeing and also shaping the company’s long term plans. I also write all of the company’s output and often perform in it. I think I’ve performed in every show we’ve done in some form or another! I originally only started writing as I couldn’t afford to pay for the rights to other peoples plays, however, over the years our original story-telling work has become an important signature of the company.

Our shows have grown year on year, as has the company, establishing a large and loyal following and performing to thousands of people all over the world including theatres in Australia, Poland, Czech Republic, Dubai, Norway and Singapore. We’re really excited to be embarking on our new tour of ‘The Trench’, which is our biggest tour to date and look forward to the many challenges and adventures that lay ahead.

The idea for Trench arrived in the van on the way home from the Edinburgh Festival 2011. My co-director James Seager and I began the journey, as all journeys home from the Edinburgh begin, with the vow that we wouldn’t do the festival again the following year. By the end of the journey we had the idea for a new show, and 2012 became Les Enfants Terribles’ 11th Fringe in a row. We discussed the sort of thing we wanted to do. I wanted to write something magical, a quest; inspired by the great fantasies like Alice in Wonderland – a new world to explore; James mentioned the idea of the Trenches of World War One and suddenly we had found our rabbit hole. What other place ever offered such a desperate need for escape?

Researching the subject of World War One Tunnellers was fascinating and the discovery of the story of real life tunneller William Hackett was a real inspiration; the only tunneller ever to receive the Victoria Cross. When the War started he was desperate to do his bit, but at 41 he was considered too old for the Infantry and was refused three times; when tunnel warfare was increased William, a skilled Miner, was called up.

Oliver Lansley in The Trench

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) buried the man. When the rescue party arrived William Hackett helped three men to safety but refused to leave the seriously injured 22 year-old Thomas Collins; his words were “I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first”. The rescue tunnel collapsed and the two men were lost forever. Though The Trench is not directly about William Hackett, he certainly served as a huge inspiration and all these names and images were swirling round my mind as I wrote.

It was half gritty realism and half fantasy, and the stakes were so huge; life, death, love, war, sacrifice. I needed to somehow distil these themes into a more personal journey.

The story of Orpheus in the underworld was stuck in my mind, the man who loved his wife so much he traveled to the Underworld to try and bring her back. This was the sort of story I wanted to write, essentially a Greek tragedy, and when I started looking at World War One poetry it all seemed to fall into place. Suddenly the form gave me the ability to be as epic as I felt the story was crying out for. I started writing, then just kept on going, the imagery and ideas just pouring onto the page. What began as a prologue continued to become a fifteen page verse poem.

It ended up being a far more personal piece than I had anticipated and despite it being set in one of the bleakest periods of our history, it became a story of salvation. This is possibly because it is only when we are tested the most, that the scale of potential within the human spirit can really come to light.

I must also take this opportunity to thank the sublimely talented Alexander Wolfe whose haunting and stunningly beautiful music is the most wonderful companion to the piece that I could ever wish for.

The Trench is dedicated to William Hackett and Thomas Collins, and every individual who lost their lives during The Great War: may we never forget the horrors they witnessed and the sacrifices they made.