Friday, April 25, 2014

The Girls in Grey and Reflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility

 The Girls in Grey by Carolyn Bock & Helen Hopkins.  The Shift Theatre (Melbourne), presented by Critical Stages, directed by Tom Healey (original direction by Karen Martin), set designed by Alex Hiller.
The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre Thursday April 24, 8.00pm, Friday April 25, 5.00pm, Saturday April 26, 2.00pm & 8.00pm, 2014.

Reflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility exhibition by Geoffrey Jones at Tuggeranong Community Arts Centre, April 24 to May 30, 2014.
Opening on Thursday 24 April at 6pm, with a speech by Mr Graham Walker, Canberra Times Senior Australian of the Year. Special event Saturday 26 April from 12- 4pm with an artist’s talk at 2pm.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 24

On the eve of Anzac Day I have been honoured to witness The Girls in Grey, complemented fortuitously by the artwork of Geoffrey Jones on exhibition at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

The Girls in Grey is a ceremonial ritual, using the words in highly personal letters written by Australian nurses sent to the front in World War I.  Geoffrey Jones, a Vietnam War veteran, reveals his personal history in Reflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility.  Both shows bring home to the viewer the change from a naive acceptance of  warfare to the realistic understanding that no-one should be expected to face such destruction – of physical and emotional life.

The honour I felt arose from the honesty with which the nurses and Jones spoke through art – his own in Jones’ case and in the scripting, stage design, directing and performing by the Shift Theatre team of the nurses’ words.

Jones’ paintings, photographic work and installations speak for themselves.  Some pieces from this exhibition have been acquired by the Australian War Memorial, for display there from 2015 after exhibition in Sydney.

Shift Theatre’s 70 minute performance could justifiably become an annual ritual on Anzac Day.  The joie de vivre of the nurses as they take the oath of service and find themselves as if on holiday in Egypt; their down-to-earth practicality as “their boys” are brought in; their humanity; their determination to do everything they can with inadequate resources; their realisation as the patients arrive in their thousands that the war is beyond all reason; and their experience of the deaths of their loved ones, including among their own colleagues – leads us to a powerful ceremony of placing the poppies gathered from the grim field of war into an array representing the graves in ordered lines in the war cemeteries around the world.

With this image before us, the reprise chorus of the nurses’ oath of service is more than ironic.  It reflects the respect we must have for all the women and men in war, the great sorrow we must feel for all this unnecessary sacrifice, and the all-encompassing hope we must maintain that humanity will some day reign: that conflict will be resolved without such destruction.

The script for The Girls in Grey  has drawn upon letters of many members of the Australian Army Nursing Service, to form three characters – the matron Grace (Carolyn Bock), Elsie (Samantha Murray) and Alice (Helen Hopkins) – with James O’Connell, in this season’s tour, playing at times a generalised soldier, and the three men in these women’s lives: Syd, Harry and Len (originally played by Lee Mason).

This trimming down was a very effective way of bringing the enormity of deaths and injuries down to the level of personal experience, when, as the War Memorial records, “From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

To present these characters over the five-year period of the war not only required a massive amount of research, but also a style of performance which could tell enough of the individual characters’ stories while keeping us aware of the wider context.  Tom Healey’s direction focusses on what some would call a ‘presentational’ style – a form of storytelling with some symbolic action, choreographed placing of figures, and shifting between individual and chorus voices.  The cast worked together so closely that in some highly significant moments they were able to maintain a lengthy silence or period of stillness, and then precisely time their next word or movement all together.  Using such good timing, and with a high degree of poetic expression, the mood of the piece began light, and then bit by bit drew us in to the darkness.

At the end, there was a feeling in the audience that we shouldn’t clap immediately, though there was no hesitation when the lights came up on stage for a curtain call.  I felt that I would have liked the final fade to black to have been held longer, and even perhaps for the curtain call to have been less cheerful.  The standard smiles and recognition of the stage crew broke the mood too quickly for me, personally.  But this should not be taken as a serious criticism of a valuable and successful theatrical work, which extended my appreciation of the role of the nurses in wartime, for which I thank Shift Theatre.

It was sadly enlightening to see the play and the art exhibition on this day.  As Geoffrey Jones has written (quoting George Orwell to summarise his inspiration: ‘If the war didn’t kill you, it was bound to start you thinking’), As an artist and former willing participant in one of these conflicts, I hope through this exhibition to encourage people to reflect upon Australia’s engagement in these costly and sometimes futile wars...The works question the apparent eagerness of Australia to become involved in overseas wars, and attempt to convey the enormous and terrible sacrifice and loss those wars incurred.

And, as Rauny Worm, CEO of Tuggeranong Arts Centre wrote – equally appropriate for The Girls in GreyReflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility “is sure to demonstrate the ability of art to act as a powerful tool for personal expression on important issues.”

Geoffrey Jones: Poppies in Afghanistan
Vietnam veterans, artist Geoffrey Jones and CT Senior Australian of the Year, Graham Walker

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