GALLIPOLI Written and Devised by Nigel Jamieson in association with The STC Actors Company and The Third Year Acting Students Of NIDA. Presented by THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY at The Sydney Theatre.
Several years ago I regarded the best THEATRE company in Australia was The Australian Opera Company. This was when Moffat Oxenbould was at the helm. The reason I thought of the Opera Company as the best theatre company was because of its daring commitment to new work. The chance of failure was enormous. To commission new work and then to mount it was a great risk and endeavour. Especially an Opera, the costs (Size of cast, chorus, orchestra, set, costumes, crew) let alone the possibility of failure were prohibitive but they had the courage to do it. I saw work such as VOSS, THE EIGHTH WONDER, THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL. But the work I mostly remember is THE GOLLUM. This was a Barrie Kosky production and I remember being thrilled and entranced. I was more stubborn in my support because at the performance I attended hundreds (I do mean hundreds) of people just stood up and left mid scene, mid act often unapologetically noisily. Maybe only 150 of us were left at the end. But this was an indication for me of a great theatre company. Not only did the Opera Company produce the ABC of opera (AIDA, BOHEME, CARMEN) to please, and ensure a box office return, but they had the courage to do work that needed to be done, to take the risk of failure upon themselves, to serve the development of the Art Form in Australia. In my argument of my belief I always asked why the major Theatre Companies (STC, MTC, SATC and QTC) had not similarly commissioned a work of scale. A play for 20 or more actors etc. A project of a parallel scale for the “straight theatre”?
So, following the recent vision of the SYDENEY THEATRE COMPANY with its commissions of THE LOST ECHO and now GALLIPOLI one might at last begin to argue that the best theatre company in Australia is now the STC. Whether they have been successful is not the criteria for my belief, but simply that the company has a vision to commit to large scale Australian work and is prepared to put its resources into the hazard. No one sets out to do bad work. The process and the journey is the important experience for the artists and should be for an interested community. The results of the work will always be unknown but we all hope for the best result. Tchaikovsky and the Ballet Company did when they produced SWAN LAKE. A catastrophic initial reception. Stanislavsky, Danchenko, Chekhov and The Moscow Art Theatre did when they first presented THE SEAGULL. An initial reception so antagonistic that Chekhov almost gave up attempting to write for the theatre and the Moscow Art feared closure.
I believe that the STC production of GALLIPOLI is a great achievement.
Indelible images: The great set piece of the first act, The landing of the Troops on the Beach of Anzac Cove (Almost the entire company, a phalanx of soldiers, each with a large wooden oar rowing to the shore (an image connected to the large triemes of the ancient Greek or Roman fleets, myth and legend, ancient and modern intertwining) this image projected on the back screen, live, at scale; accompanied by a graphic soundscape of enemy defence barrage, minor and major explosions of violated water; then the crazy scaling of the sheer rock face of the beach (With four athletic figures walking straight up walls and falling spectacularly back down to earth. Magnificent flying-rope work by the NIDA students (Under the care of Gavin Robbins)). Lighting that sweeps the soldiers generally and particularly as shells explode and rock the boat and soldiers fall wounded to the floor. The images of the scourge of the flies on and about the bodies of the soldiers (the many hands and fingers flapping around the orifices of the weakened soldiers: their eyes, nose, mouth and ears with a terrifying hum of the busy insects piercing the soundscape). The repeated, reckless assaults by our troops into the line of the enemy (individual soldiers lifted up and ran directly at us to be shot with a shattering sound of rifle shot and gently laid down in convulsing, shuddering twitches confronting us with the fear and horror of the battlefield ). “Bodies” hooked up and lifted to the roof, pouring rain/water onto the soldiers below in their trapdoor trenches, then snow billowing up and blown across the water soaked bodies of the soldiers. The unravelling of the lists of the war dead up into the top of the huge proscenium height, projected onto white papers, column after column, that, with their completed scale looked like pillars of a memorial. The image of the return of a contemporary war dead, superimposed onto the same scrolls (contemporary beret wearing, uniformed troops carrying on their beleaguered shoulders a white coffin draped in an Australian flag, the faces unforgettably grieving). Or the last devastating super imposition of an image of the last survivor of the Gallipoli Campaign at 103 years of age accompanied by the simple voiceover (Peter Carroll) that he had joined up at the age of 16, and now with the hindsight of a long life lived, would never do it again.
Imagine a huge raked, raised platform slanted towards the laps of the audience, ingeniously pock marked with many trapdoors that serve for many purposes including entrances and exits for the living, trenches and graves and pits for the war wounded and dead. See a great perforated metal screen, at the back of the platform, maybe 36 feet high by 24 wide, that when lit from behind has four tiers of acting space for the revelation of narrative enactments of the story (Ship dinner banquets, brothels, hospital wards etc) which also can be projected upon with archival newspaper images/photographs of buildings, maps, people, Theatre Bills, newspaper articles, letters, official documents, archival photographs and film from the period (of the embarkation of troops, the scattered war wounded and dead on the grounds etc). All the locations of action, set in battle grey with all the permutations to piercing white to enveloping black. The Set Design (Nigel Jamieson, Alexandra Sommer, Brad Clark) is a masterpiece of practical flexible function with a great grave beauty and ominous atmosphere. The work of the Video Artist, Antonia Freedman, is overwhelming for its scale and thoughtful relevance. When not explicating or supporting the action of the scene unfurling, live camera action is projected behind the actual performers. The execution of it must have been a logistical nightmare. The lighting by Trudy Dalgleish brilliant in its general and detailed cues must have presented the technicians with a plot of mammoth complication. Pictures of devastating affect were indelibly made by the expertise of judgement and organisation of light. Ms Dalgleish and her crew should take a personal bow for the victory of their endeavour.
The Costume Design, mostly army uniform for 40 actors plus the multitude of other characters: Vaudeville/Music Hall performers, other Armed Forces uniform and civilian costume both of Western and Eastern cultures and societies, adding the complication for quick changes, as this company must play hundreds of different characters or extras throughout the piece, the logistics must be terrific.(I mean terrific as in Terror). That they occur without notice to us in the audience is a triumph of organisation.
Add to this a soundscape of immense scale and affect and a live orchestra (of two very versatile artists) playing an almost unceasing composition/score by Alan John and co-composer Steve Francis and the operatic scale of the enterprise becomes evident.
Conceptually and practically this is a major achievement for any theatre company.
The performers have been welded into a unit of “non-caste” performers. The entire company carry equal responsibility. The STC Company carry most of the text (nearly all) but all the company are on stage for the entire performance. This is truly an ensemble so integrated into the mechanism of the free flow of the work that it is difficult to distinguish the STC Company and the Student, except by the youthfulness of the NIDA participants. (Some may find the youthful look of some of the cast disconcerting, then the realisation that the actual recruited soldiers were often even younger, 15 and 16 year olds, brings a verisimilitude to the performance that gives one pause.)
John Gaden having a featured role as Sir Ian Hamilton gives an outstanding performance. The clarity of his view of the character of the man is measured against the immaculate concentration and accurate skill of the artist. A powerhouse of focused energy that bullies the piece along. Not a single moment of wasted energy. At all times Mr Gaden is present and in charge of the scene/story he is telling. He commands the ensemble and leads with a high order of professionalism. Luke Mullins, new to the STC Ensemble this year, gives further evidence of a growing power and ability to reveal layers of information about character and events in an instant. His Charles Bean, The official Australian Reporter on the scene, displays the dilemma of integrity: the need to fulfil the requirements of a desperate home government trying to maintain support for the war through propaganda and the grief and impulse to tell the truth of the horrors of the battlefield. Marta Dusseldorp continues to impress with her approach to her work. Seeking dimension to her characterisations no matter how little help she gets from the writing. There is always a sense of an artist that is interesting and undeniably reliable. Always a gentle radiating. Ewen Leslie succeeds best as the leader of the Turkish forces, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, rather than as the Australian Prime Minister, William “Billy” Hughes. There is a stillness of quite confidence and a sense of destiny emanating from Mr Leslie’s handling of the Kemal scenes. Eden Falk gives his best work. The Keith Murdoch role seemed to spark an energy of real clarity of purpose. (Unfortunately there was a moment of lapsed concentration in a key speech). Other members of the STC ensemble were also sometimes a little unfocused in the pell mell of chorus responsibility.
The NIDA contribution is fairly integral to this work and on the several occasions I have attended performance their discipline and focus seems to have relaxed but sharpened. Each visit has seen the young actors responding to the demands of the production in a positively committed way.
Nigel Jamieson has explained his choice of subject, Gallipoli, because he feels that “Australia does not have a lot of collective mythologies” and that “For whatever reason, Gallipoli, seems to have found a unique and seemingly ever growing, place in our culture and society.” Mr John Howard has emphasised that we know our history and Mr Jamieson feels that most Australians know only the bare bones of the myth - “the heroic landing on the wrong beach, the humour and larrikin mateship with which our boys faced hardship and death, making the “ultimate sacrifice””. With meticulous research Mr Jamieson has put together a script that tells in detail the origins of the war, the campaign recruitment, the inter-colonial and personal politics of the country’s involved, the journey of the troops across the world and finally the landing at Gallipoli and the gruesome and extended 8 month campaign that ended in disastrous losses, defeat and withdrawal. Certainly the Play written by Mr Jamieson has considerably expanded my knowledge and given me a deeper appreciation of the tragedies and sacrifices of The ANZAC tradition.
Charles bean is quoted, “You come here and see the job and understand it and get out of your head the nonsense that is written about it. There is horror and beastliness and cowardice and treachery, over all of which the writer anxious to please the public has to throw his cloak. But this is the true side of war. But if I was to put that into print tomorrow the tender Australian public, which only tolerates flattery and in its cheapest form, would howl me out of existence.”
The weakness of the production I believe is the playwriting. I remember coming out at the interval quietly disappointed. There had been too much verbatim information. “As a matter of fact”. “As a matter of fact.” There were too many facts too dryly communicated. A welter of information that is not much attached to speakers or characters that could make me attend for an hour an a half without “resting”. There has not been a development of attachment for me to care too much about what is being dramatised. It has become a bit of a history lesson. Just a trifle, a bit of a bore. It is the HOW the story has been told that compels me to go back in (the stuning visuals and their execution), not the WHAT or WHO or WHY of the drama.
However, by the end of the play I have been touched. There were faster and more affecting images and stories. The horror of the extended campaign became a human struggle for survival and dignity. I was able to attach emotionally, even if the attachment was too an army, a group if not individuals. Maybe to the fate of Ian Hamiliton. John Gaden at his masterful best. This character drew my attention and I followed him through the piece with deliberated care. He just did not come back enough. Too, the Keith Murdoch character gave impetus to the narrative. There was action. A possibility of “rescue”. It seems the tone of the second act had at his base a strong motivation, growing anger and outrage. The first act just did not seem to have a tone.
I thought back to other theatre works of this kind and of course OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR by Theatre Workshop under the direction of Joan Littlewood springs straight to mind. Another anti-war piece is the Tony Richardson film THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE written by Charles Wood. Both of these works have a clear and passionate point of view. Both are savage, satiric, factual, funny, engaging and uncomfortable. Not ever are you bored. The facts are interpolated into character and plot. The point of view of the first act of Gallipoli may not have a powerful enough well spring of need. It is just not passionately engaging. The facts are too cold. Too didactic. The strength of Oh What A Lovely War and The Charge of the Light Brigade are the writing of real characters that one identified with and cared about, one way or the other. Flotsam and jetsam swept up and on the man made tsunami of war. One recognised a human like oneself and one cared, feared and wept. Act one of Gallipoli does not do this as it stands at the moment.
This scale of theatre making I have experienced, sensationally, memorably in the work of THEATRE DU SOLIEL – the Parisian company of Ariane Mnouchkine – here, in Sydney a few years ago as part of the Sydney Festival THE FLOOD DRUMMERS and subsequently as part of the Melbourne Arts Festival, another few years on, the six hour production, LE DERNIER CARAVANSERAIL (ODYSSEES). This is a company that may spend up to 6 to 18 months rehearsing a work with a professional company of up to 30 actors (or more) and a Creative Production team numbering up to the hundred. That they then spend the entire of their season, maybe 2 or 3 years, to continue to perfect the work, is breathtaking. It is amazing to contemplate that Nigel Jamieson and his ad hoc company of 13 professional actors (albeit the permanent STC Actors Company) and a company of 24 student actors and a much smaller support team have achieved this standard of explication. It is to be applauded. The French have a deep investment in the Arts. If only we had a Government and community that would invest in the artistic vision of our artists at a similar level. This kind of work is Olympian in vision, and necessarily demands the preparation of Olympian athletes. How much do our Gold, Silver and Bronze medals cost us? A campaign to encourage the Government to invest even more deeply in preparation for the London Games has begun. (Mr Coates a brilliant tactitian). Maybe we should be lobbying for the funds to take this or some other production to London for the pre-game Arts festival. We have been teased that it would be humiliating to have the British Athletes win more medals than us Ozzies (OI, Oi, Oi!!!) How much more satisfying for our Australian pride to devastate them (those blasted Poms!) with a Theatre Production that could leave them gagging with envy. (OI, OI, OI!!!!) How satisfying it would be to win GOLD, GOLD, GOLD at The National Theatre in London.
GALLIPLOI is a work of much achievement and ought not to be missed. Parents, if for no other reason than this is a good history lesson you should attend with your children. They may even be impressed with the passionate vision of Nigel Jamieson and the challenge that the SYDNEY THEATRE have taken on and take theatre on as a part of their way of life.
When it closes it will be one of those benchmarks of achievement with which you will measure other experiences.
Playing now until 23 August at The Sydney Theatre. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.