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Dutch production Oorlog explores war at Belfast Children's Festival

Jenny Lee chats to Dutch writer/director Jetse Batelaan about exploring the concept of war through theatre with his show Oorlog at Belfast Children's Festival

The subject of war is explored in Theater Artemis' production Oorlog (War) at this year's Belfast Children's Festival

WOULD you know what to say if your child asked you "what is war?". This was the situation Dutch children's theatre director and author Jetse Batelaan found himself in with his own children.

His inability to give them a proper answer led him to creating Oorlog (War), which will have its Irish premiere at the Belfast Children's Festival next month.

"The subject came up because my wife is actually teaching refugee children and there are kids in their soccer team who are refugees. The subject is huge and I was at loss for words," explains Batelaan.

"At the same time I was fascinated about the idea that the real knowledge of war is not dependant on your age. Children intuitively know that there is such a thing as war and sadly there are other children who know much more about it than I do."

His solution to exploring war was to dissect it into smaller pieces – smoke, sirens, screams, surrenders and ruins: "One of the main things I thought was that war is too 'big'. So the only way to deal with the subject was to divide it into different battles.

"The play and war stars with the actors out of sight, behind the wall pulling ropes. This is a nice metaphor as war often starts with people not in the war zone itself pulling at ropes."

Although there is some dialogue between the actors and the audience, the production is highly visual. Using their trademark physical theatre style, Theater Artemis explore the challenging subject of the chaos of conflict and the effect it has on people and their surroundings, through a range of on-stage props.

A balloon slowly deflating, a nose bleeding, little helicopters falling down from a tree, a shower crying, audience members shooting and three soldiers roller-skating backwards all combine to symbolise war and ultimately how the human spirit endures.

Audience participation is another key element: "I always say what I do with my team and my actors are only half of the show – the other half is the audience and giving space to their expression. It's the same for this show, which is more of less a conflict between the actors and the audience, which them as protestors also providing the soundscape."

Earlier this year, Batelaan was awarded the prestigious Silver Lion at Venice Biennale – the first time it was awarded to a person involved in theatre for young audiences.

"It's a big honour and I was really surprised by it," says the delighted Dutchman.

"This is a big statement from the jury and an indication that the rest of Europe, like the Netherlands is taking this field of art seriously."

Oorlog is aimed at children age seven plus, and although war is a sensitive subject, it is not something Batelaan believes our young people should be sheltered from.

"Children are much more powerful that we think and although some aspects of the performance are scary, it's really important to not protect our children, but to give them trust and confidence in that they will be able to survive and interpret it.

"Of course, with a seven-year-old you can't go into the full impact of war, but it's good to let them be aware it's part of our world. We don't have to accept it, but fight for a better world.

"However until we reach a world or peace and happiness, we have to deal with the more difficult aspects of life – and theatre is an effective way of doing that."

Batelaan is particularly excited to bring Oorlog to Northern Ireland, which has experienced many years of conflict.

He says: "We've played it a lot abroad, but not until now in a country that has had an experience of war. When this invitation came from Belfast, one of the first thing can came into our minds was would the audience reaction be different.

"Grown-ups will experience the show in a total different way than the kids and for some it may be quite heavy and touching as they have their own images of war already in their minds."

:: Oorlog (War) by Theatre Artemis runs at Belfast's MAC theatre from March 8 to 10 as part of The 21st Belfast Children's Festival which continues until March 13. For full programme details and tickets visit Youngatart.co.uk.

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