Once on Chunuk Bair - review
Directors: Ian Mune & Cameron Rhodes
Auckland Theatre Company at The Maidment
Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, ANZACs: familiar names sitting easily in New Zealand’s cultural conversation. Beneath the surface lies another reality: on one level, it’s what actually happened to the men who participated in the events these names signify; on another, it’s the meaning we, as a society, attach to them.
Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair unpicks the reality and the mythology of the Gallipoli campaign, the taking of Chunuk Bair on August 8, 1915. Twelve men, actors, embrace the challenge of depicting that dreadful day, the action taking place on a startlingly authentic set by Jon Verryt, evocative of both the miserable conditions and the impossible terrain, thus becoming the 13th character in the compelling drama that unfolds.
As the play opens, Chunuk Bair, empty of “Abduls”, is there for the taking. As the day progresses, support fails to materialise and the Turks – under Mustapha Kemal – bring in reinforcements, it becomes increasingly obvious the “Fernleafs” are left in the lurch.
Ranging across black humour, codes of mateship, attitudes to home and “duty to empire”, touching on class, political and religious differences, the text is gritty, visceral, emotionally stirring. Meanwhile, it locates the Dardanelles in history: other conquerors (Xerxes the Persian), Troy in the distance on the Asian shore, referencing the legendary fight between Achilles and Hector.
Sympathy works on many levels: anger at the monstrous stupidity and venal betrayal by the British Command, whose ignorant insult to the desperate New Zealanders (calling them Australians) fans a developing national identity. Outrage at injustice: the Brits swimming, strolling, drinking tea in Suvla Bay while on Chunuk Bair they are without water or backup, fighting a pointless, unwinnable battle. And admiration for the heroic “fuck you” folly that saw the Fernleafs determined to do what had been asked (“hold Chunuk Bair forever”) in spite of – perhaps because of – the impossibility of achieving the goal.
Ian Mune and Cameron Rhodes’ production, supported by Jason Smith’s moving soundscape, Sean Lynch’s spectral lighting and Tracey Collins’ faithful costumes, is fierce, gripping, intensely dramatic and deeply humane, while the acting ensemble’s passion and commitment creates not only an internal conviction but spills off the stage enveloping the audience.
The officers: Colonel Connolly (Stephen Lovatt), a tough, fair, intuitive leader; Lieutenant Harkness (Sam Sneddon), an educated toff, a believer in Empire who learns his courage and earns his place. The men: Porky (Andrew Grainger), Scruffy (Tim Carlsen), Holy (Jordan Mooney), Smiler (Wesley Dowdell), Mac (Johnny Bright), Bassett (Byron Coll), Otaki George (Taungaroa Emile), Fred (Oscar Wilson), Nobby (Alex Walker), men facing destiny with humour, pragmatism, terror and courage. And Sergeant Frank (Kevin Keys), an independent-minded, left-wing, working-class rebel. Shadbolt’s vision of New Zealand’s future?
The play is 30 years old, and although a slightly dated feel occasionally emerges, the question of national identity, how we define it, is relevant today. The opening night audience gave this significant production a well-deserved standing ovation: this is our history, our national story.
To July 5.
Photo: Michael Smith.