Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Flak written and performed by Michael Veitch

Flak written and performed by Michael Veitch.  Ellis Productions directed by Helen Ellis at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, April 28 to May 2, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 28

“To be remembered.  Not always.  Just sometimes – to be remembered.”

That’s all this 90-year-old asks of us, though he was awarded the DFC twice.  That’s the Distinguished Flying Cross [ ] awarded to “Officers and Warrant officers for an act or acts of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy".

This was the conclusion to the presentation on stage by Michael Veitch of a number of the “true stories from the men who flew in World War Two” recorded in his 2006 book Flak.  He has made a very effective selection of Australian, English, Welsh and German fliers’ stories, and in the telling he creates the personality of each one as he was at the time and place of Veitch’s original interview.  As the narrator, he presents himself ‘in character’ as the adult man who from early childhood was fascinated by the wartime aeroplanes and who became almost obsessed first with the Spitfire and Battle of Britain story, and now with the history of World War Two through the experiences of those – the relatively few – who survived the ‘trips’ and ‘tours’ across the skies of Europe over six years of conflict.

Along with the men’s stories we are given the context of the machines – many of disastrously dangerous design, and all inevitably vulnerable to destruction by airborne gunfire and flak from the ground.  The result brings to life horrific events, yet leavened by the humour of the old men’s reflections.  The message remains that war and its requirement to kill or be killed is entirely pointless.

Yet there is hope in the message that we must remember, must never forget, that reality.  And in remembering the excitement of such a dangerous adventure as flying in all kinds of weather; dropping depth charges from a Sunderland, just barely above a U-boat’s conning tower (“You got him!” reported the navigator, at once both elated and horrified); being literally ejected at 22,000 feet when flak hit the fuel tank in an explosion which killed all the others on board; using your headphones cable to tie a tourniquet which slowed the bleeding from your shattered leg and then remembering to pull the rip cord on your parachute and enjoying the silence at 15,000 feet; bailing out injured over the Home Counties, landing near a farmhand who thought you were German and having to scream at him “Piss off and get me an ambulance!”  Or even sitting next to Eva Braun in the Eagle’s Nest and asking why she bothered with such an unimpressive man as Hitler (just after you have cheerfully shaken the Führer’s hand and received an award for your flying prowess).

And especially hope in that even that same German flyer, now living in Australia, had finally seen through it all, when starving and freezing German soldiers fleeing from the Russians were fired on by their own military police as they tried to crowd onto his plane to be rescued.  I will never forget the image of those desperate hands, just their skin, still stuck to the frozen metal of his fuselage when he landed in Poland with the few he was able to take off the Russian ice.

Veitch’s professional history as a comedian perhaps explains his ability to incorporate humour into these stories and his own experiences in seeking out his interviewees, but his acting is at all times entirely true.  There is no hint of exaggeration for effect.  His work is done with all the respect his sources deserve.  Though this production was not specifically to do with the current Anzac ceremonies, I could not help compare the honesty and lack of sentimentality in Veitch’s work with the emphasis on the ‘heroic’ qualities of the Gallipoli stories. 

Flak is storytelling at its best.