The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

Arts & Culture

D-CAF Festival: ‘The Great War’ by Hotel Modern – Landmark Contemporary Theatre in Cairo

D-CAF Festival: ‘The Great War’ by Hotel Modern – Landmark Contemporary Theatre in Cairo
written by
Emily Wright

When we spoke to D-CAF’s artistic director, Ahmed El-Attar, in the run up to the festival, he hinted that one show to catch on the programme would be by Dutch performing arts company,  Hotel Modern.  In El-Attar’s words, their piece, The Great War, is “a landmark in contemporary European theatre” and having secured their presence at D-CAF, Cairo would ensure its rank as a culture capital. 

Production began on The Great War over ten years ago when Dutch theatre students, Pauline Kalker and Arlene Hoornweg, founded Hotel Modern and together with Herman Helle conceived a new way of presenting the World War I. Since then, the show has achieved great success on tour in Europe and has also been performed in the Americas and Asia. Tonight, the show will make its Arab World premier, as D-CAF brings another internationally renowned act to a Downtown Cairo stage.  We caught up with Kalker and Helle, together with the show’s sound performer, Arthur Sauer, ahead of tonight’s opening show.

When The Great War first took to the stage in 2001, it was branded innovative and cutting edge; technology has evolved voraciously since then, but Hotel Modern’s format has remained the same and their shows still wow audiences with their creative and experimental techniques. The team have dubbed their art form ‘live animation film’, which involves a multi-platform performance in which WWI is enacted in minute scale, using puppets and models created by Helle. Drawing on his background as an architect, Helle creates the scenery in painstaking detail, with a dab of creative licence. Common garden compost is arranged on a table to depict the grim trench landscape, while for woodland combat, sprigs of parsley are passed off as trees.

The intricacy of these sets means that although the audience is party to the live performance taking place on stage before them, cameras are also set up to capture every detail of the action, which is then projected on a big screen behind the artists. The music for each performance is also created live on stage, with no shortage of resourceful innovation, too; throughout the show, Sauer busies himself on stage, composing a chaotic soundtrack fit for a war, using only generic household items. “We originally had in mind a symphony orchestra to provide the sound, but Arthur recommended that we use live sound so that everything happens all together” Kalker explained.

The immediacy and starkness of the performance are its greatest assets, which Kalker believes comes from the contrast between the micro and the macro in the piece. At a moment of most heightened intimacy and intensity, created by live action and enhanced through the use of up-close cameras, a hand of one of the puppeteers may enter the shot to relocate a model and thus the illusion is suspended. Far from ruining the atmosphere of the performance, Kalker believes this allows the audience a moment’s reflection and creates necessary distance from the events. “If a puppet dies, it seems to really die so it is real, but it is not as disturbing to a viewer’s thought process as showing an actual image of a dead body” he told us.

The group are clear that what they are presenting is not a history lesson, but instead a study on human nature and its capacity to inflict horror and pain upon the world. Despite ostensibly being about the events of WWI between 1914 and 1918, the company say that their piece aims to communicate the more general concept of war and reflect issues inherent to conflicts that have occurred worldwide throughout history.

Hotel Modern proudly buck today’s trend of technology for technology’s sake; they shun CGI’s high spectacle digital processes as they believe their success comes from the fact that people see what they do as accessible and, according to Sauer, think to themselves: “that could happen in my kitchen”. By actualising a horrific event such as war in this way, the effects of their performance become all the more emotive and agitating, managing to present a mature and fresh approach to the subject of war.

Although the company have encountered one or two problems crossing borders on their international tours – they joke that “the US wouldn’t allow us to bring in soil and Singapore took away our coconuts” – the piece’s themes and language are still universal, so translating their ideas into new parts of the world has never been a problem. However, they are aware of the new relevance the piece takes on each time it opens in a different city. “It has been said to us that Egypt is going through a slow war” remarks Kalker, and the group agree that they are curious to see how this piece will be received in the capital. 

The performance will take place at Falaki Theatre in Downtown Cairo on the 16th and 17th of April at 8PM, in English with Arabic subtitles. Tickets are 20LE (10LE student ticket); for more information, contact