Slaughterhouse Five (MUST) – theatre review

Fleur Kilpatrick’s stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five explores the horrors of war and the effects of PTSD. The play centres on the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden between February 13 and 15, 1945 in which tens of thousands of people died. The book’s narrator (and author), who’s also part of the play, has been captured by the Germans. He survives the Dresden devastation while being held in a cellar known as Slaughterhouse 5.

Photo: Sarah Walker

Billy Pilgrim (Sam Barson) is a chaplain’s assistant in the US Army during WWII. He has refused to take a combat role. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, he witnesses atrocities and is maltreated by some of his fellow soldiers who decry his cowardice. Suffering from PTSD, Billy is placed under psychiatric care in hospital more than once. He believes aliens from a planet called Tralfamadore abducted him. He also thinks he’s travelled in time.

The tale unfolds in non-linear fashion, so events are often described in flashbacks and flashforwards. We learn of Billy’s experiences and those of other soldiers … as well as the sophisticated aliens that “capture” and transport him. Some of this is revealed by dialogue, but an effective theatrical device is using a series of chalk boards to describe Billy’s fate. The tale ends on a very powerful note with all boards full.

Through narrative and even song, the 10-strong cast – who play multiple roles – do a great job bringing to life this sci-fi infused drama. Barson leads them from the front.

I hope my plot descriptor is helpful. It’s such a zigzag journey that a prior understanding of the subject matter is necessary. I hadn’t read the book, nor seen the 1972 movie version. Nor had I read anything of the story before I entered the theatre and as a result found myself lost throughout the first act. That is not the fault of Kilpatrick’s writing or direction, which is faithful to the book. Rather it points to the left-of-centre nature of the events. This is a mind-stretching trip, which is, at times, darkly comedic.

Photo: Sarah Walker

I was impressed by the professionalism shown by the young cast, who bring a great deal of energy to this production.

Slaughterhouse Five by the Monash Uni Student Theatre – or MUST – is on at Theatre Works, St Kilda until 5 May 2019.

Alex First

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