Sunday, April 1, 2012
Breaker Morant by Kenneth G Ross
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Since there has been some mention in the press arguing the toss about the truth of the Breaker Morant story, I should begin by making it clear that I have not studied the history of the Boer War nor any details of the Court Martial and execution of Morant and Handcock. I look at this play as an interpretation of history, just as Shakespeare’s history plays are.
This doesn’t mean that I think this play is up to Shakespeare’s standard, however. It is almost entirely a courtroom scene with brief excursions to the defendants’ meetings with their defence lawyer, Major Thomas, and the prison cell housing Morant, Handcock and their co-accused, George Witton, who escaped the firing squad, and to Lord Kitchener’s office.
The Court is represented as a shambles because the accused refused to be subordinate, making it very difficult to avoid most of the play being a shouting match, without much opportunity for subtle emotional developments to be displayed. The strongest scene – and the quietest – is near the end when Major Thomas confronts Colonel Hamilton to try to have the execution delayed to allow time to contact the Australian and British governments. Kitchener has already signed the death warrants and left, leaving Hamilton to fob off Thomas. Dr Duncan Driver played Thomas’s determination and frustration in the face of immutable forces very well indeed, while Colin Gray’s Hamilton was so cold that the atmosphere in the whole theatre silently froze.
Duncan Ley as Morant and Robert DeFries as Handcock successfully presented themselves as men of maturity and authority, but at the same time the script, I think, too often puts them out as too willing to interrupt the court proceedings with obscenities and open attacks on witnesses and the court itself. It may be that this may have happened in the real court martial (suggesting that British law was falling apart in the wilds of Africa), but too much too often lessens the theatrical tension on stage. I would have expected the President of the Court Martial to have taken action against them for contempt of court, but all he did was to keep saying he wouldn’t allow them to keep up their unacceptable behaviour.
Though I could see the justification for the director’s desire to make the story ‘timeless’ by using military costume from different eras, having a female prosecutor (Major Bolton played very well by Andrea Close), and removing references to specific dates, I found this distracting rather than making a strong point. It might have been more bold to do as was done in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, and use a recent modern setting, in Iraq, say. However, I think it would take much manipulation for this to work with this story, though perhaps the Bosnian war would have allowed for summary executions. In the end keeping strictly to the historical period, when armies did as a matter of course execute their own, would have been the better way to go.
This production of Breaker Morant, as I saw it, certainly made the point that the executions were politically motivated rather than justified in court, but the sympathy for Morant that was engendered in the film version in 1980 (which was entirely based on this playscript) was replaced by empathy with Major Thomas, who so valiantly tried and ultimately failed through no fault of his own. It became his play, and in that way became a legal drama rather than a myth about a wronged Australian.
I’m not sure if this was Jarrad West’s intention, but it still made this a worthwhile production to see.