The concept may sound like a testosterone-fuelled, homoerotic fantasy. Seven men, soldiers no less, confined to a single room to sweat and argue and wrestle amongst themselves. Totally naked. Yet, ‘The Curing Room’ is not a birthday-outfit Fringe gimmick, nor is it a masculinist thrill ride. It is a powerful and moving piece that questions mankind’s kindness, humanity and instinct for survival. The effect of the male nakedness is nothing like that of a greased up bodybuilders competition, instead they appear vulnerable and over exposed.
This is a story of broken minds and broken spirits. It is a perspective on World War II that is not grand or noble – it sees the war through a cellar grate, through the weakened eyes of trapped, desperate men. Only one space is shown. This is a small story plucked from an overwhelming narrative. However, from this narrow viewpoint, the terrors and atrocities of war are intensely realised. The fear, violence, and chaos of wartime are condensed into this one prison room.
The soldiers have been abandoned. Robbed of their modesty, locked in a monastery cellar, they are unsure of why they have not been thrown to the Germans’ dogs, like their officers. These men live out their own circle of hell. For how long can they cling to the standards of the world above them? How long until these dirty, naked beings lose hold of their humanity and come to resemble beasts?
This is a simple production. There are no costumes, save body paint smeared across chests to resemble grime and blood, no set, save a projected window pattern on the floor, and a few props. The only adornments to the stage appear in the second half of the performance, in the form of body parts and bones. This means the focus is on the actors, on every part of their physicality and every piece of their body language. This sparseness and concentration on the onstage bodies heightens the intensity of the piece – there is nothing to hide the horror behind. As the audience watch the men sink into hunger, resentment and despair, the focus is unrelenting.
Yet this oft-excruciating focus is not at the expense of the actors, for all their over-exposure. They all give hauntingly strong and affecting performances. Each of the characters transcend caricature. From the wounded, moralistic Captain, to the violent gunner, to the child-brained Uri, who cannot grasp the concept of death, all are complex, layered individuals. The nudity is actually quickly forgotten, as the tensions between the men draw attention. This is a drama about order and hierarchy, and when to abandon any attachment to these systems. Hunger can destroy moral codes quickly.
With this subject matter one would expect ‘The Curing Room’ to be shocking and brutal. It is shocking, yet it never comes close to the gore-fest that, under less skilful treatment, it could too easily resemble. It is horrific, but also hauntingly beautiful. This may be a small, unique snapshot of wartime, but it uncompromisingly captures its tragedy.