Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel was part of a remarkable group of First World War classics – Goodbye to All That, Journey’s End and All Quiet on the Western Front all first appeared within the same year – which brought a sense of historic perspective a decade on from the Armistice.
It was first adapted for the stage in the following year, while the film version with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes followed in 1932.
Now it is the subject of a wonderful theatrical tour de force by the experimental company Imitating the Dog, a seamless collaboration between adapters and directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks and video designer Simon Wainwright.
It begins with the actors breaking into an abandoned and dust shrouded hospital, like modern urban explorers, to set up their digital storytelling equipment.
A video camera presents projected close ups of the two principal characters, American ambulance driver Frederic Henry and English nurse Catherine Barkley, while the other four cast members play subsidiary characters and provide a chorus to fill in the narrative thread.
Hemingway based the book on his own experience as a teenage ambulance driver with the Italian army in 1918, which was quickly cut short when he was invalided out with major injuries.
But the book is set against the lead up to the previous year’s disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto, much less familiar to British audiences than the Western Front, but brilliantly evoked here.
Much of the dialogue is in Italian, with surtitles incorporated into the digital projection along with text from the book – an imaginatively conceived and executed graphic device.
At one point the words swirl around the stage like a snow storm, while the heavy rain which adds to the nightmare of the Austrian offensive is also strikingly conjured up.
To complete a sense of cinematic envelopment, there is an original score by Jeremy Paton-Jones which plays almost continuously.
There was just one early scene where I felt music and dialogue grated, and I am always slightly unhappy about drama that involves actors wearing headsets, but otherwise this rich and original mix of theatrical ingredients is entirely convincing.
The novel is in five sections, but this adaptation falls into two distinctive halves. In the first, Frederic and Catherine’s romance unfolds against the context of the war, while in the second the lovers opt out of the war and the production becomes plainer and more focused.
This is where Jude Monk McGowan and Laura Atherton, as Frederic and Catherine, most come into their own.
In the earlier scenes these can seem oddly bloodless characters, but the long and agonising final scene in the hospital, which feels as though it is unfolding in real time, is another demonstration of theatre’s ability to take us to the edges of human experience.
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes. Until Saturday, November 22. For tickets visit the website.