Saturday, October 17, 2015


Dead Men’s Wars by Ralph McCubbin Howell.

Directed by Brett Adams. Street One. The Street Theatre. Canberra Youth Theatre Company (AUS) and Long Cloud Youth Theatre(NZ). Until October 25.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins  


  The right and responsibility of every youth theatre is to give voice to young people through theatre and for them to own the work that they have created.  Dead Men’s Wars is a collaborative project between Canberra Youth Theatre and New Zealand’s Long Cloud Youth Theatre. Six actors from both companies assume the principal roles of three youth ambassadors on a trip to Anzac Cove, their two chaperones, Darren (Andrew Eddie) and Helen (Lydia Buckley-Gorman) Liam Kelly plays Owen, a friend of Lori’s who is also in Turkey at the time. A chorus of performers provides the kaleidoscope of characters that populate the stage as soldiers, museum exhibits, protestors and phantoms, the abstract expression of war and attitude. Lori is joined by Charlie, who is documenting the trip and Kip, whose brother is serving in Afghanistan. Ralph McCubbin Howell’s tightly constructed script presents a discourse, sparking conflict, eliciting diverse and often opposing attitudes towards the Anzac myth and the celebration of the legendary occasion. This is a play of ideas and opinion, staged with theatrical flair and performed with unswerving conviction and energy and flair by the tightly directed ensemble.
Richard Cotta and Liam Kelly in Dead Men's Wars
Photo by Liam Kelly
  The play opens with a scene played by two soldiers, caught by gunfire and nerve gas in the trenches. It is here amongst the mud and stench of gas and death that one fearlessly resolves to help his injured mate. “Mates don’t leave their mates” and with this adamant retort the legend of Australian mateship is born. The scene of suffering in the horror of war segues to the present day scene between Lori and Darren. Lori has distributed her comments, criticizing the Anzac myth online, much to Darren’s disgust and fear of reprisal rom the tour’s sponsors.

  At first I think that I am revisiting the words of Alf and his son Hughie from Alan Seymour’s classic play about Anzac day, The One Day Of The Year, written half a century ago. Lori’s online posting of the speech evokes the same reaponse of disgust and horror at ingratitude and insult that appalled Alf when he leant of Hughie’s article in the university paper. It would be easy to accuse Hoell’s dialogue of cliché, however carefully this may be tempered by Helen’s more modrate approach. The situation is exacerbated further by the secret podcast recordings of all conversations that Charlie (Nathalie Morris) is preparing. Kip’s account of his brother’s experiences at the frontline also echoe the few words of the old veteran Wacka in The One Day of the Year. I make these comparisons, not to confirm the cliché as a person who remembers when Seymou’s play first tunnedAustralian audiences for its apparent attack on the behaviour of certain returned soldiers on Anzac Day, but to highlight the power of thisproduction to allow a voice for a new generation, who now experience daily the images of atrocities in the war torn Middle East  in the comfort of their own loungerooms. No such images of actual wars, happened there and now invaded the loungerooms of the fifties. One person’s cliché is another person’s new discovery.

  I gradually cast aside my first impression as Brett Adams’s excellent direction does justice to Howell’s intent to present many different sides of the argument. The play is essentially a debate. We are compelled to question istory. Whose war is it? What is left unknown, unsaid? What information determines or attiutudes?  Darren represents the conservative, traditional view. Helen speaks with a more moderate voice. Owen plays the antagonist. Kip struggles with his appreciation of reality and Charlie remains he detached observer. Supported by the varying images and characters of the Ensemble, all voices have expression in the individual opinion, and the power of this drama evolves with intriguing argument.
Bella Guererra and Ensemble in Dead men's Wars
Photos by Lorna Sim
  What appeared simplistic became a network of complex questions. We see the spark that Lori has ignited and its consequence, both personal in the threat of return to New Zealand and the reactions of tweeters across the globe as well as universal in the omnipotent power of the  sponsors and the power of the majority to stifle the voice of the lone protestor. It is only when the Ensemble, the vociferous majority oppose the might of the unjust that we see the true poer of the people in the face of oppression.

  The reality remains. Gallipoli was a military failure and a national success. This evocatively staged production, powerfully staged on Christiane Nowak’s expressionistic timber scaffold set and enhanced by Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design and Coleman Grehan’s sound design. may to some appear a familiar and well-worn theme. To others, and I suspect to the members of Canberra Youth Theatre and Long Cloud Youth Theatre it offers revelation through their research, rehearsal and performance of a superbly executed piece of theatre. For my part, I did feel that the company did protest too much. This is an excellent example of youth theatre, dedicated to its passion and its argument, staged with regard for the power of the ensemble, highly disciplined and imbued with clarity of action and intent. I would have preferred more tightly edited contemporary scenes with more flashbacks to actual examples of the suffering, protestation and power struggles of the period. In this production they find effective expression in the scene between the two soldiers and the scene with the nurses. However, that is a personal opinion. Collaborative projects can tend to eke out ideas and situations. Greater economy of dramatic moments would have had a more powerful effect.

  Canberra Youth Theatre and Long Cloud are to be congratulated on achieving such a theatrically absorbing performance that again invites us to question human motive, behavior and consequence. Dead men’s Wars speaks to us all with a voice that still resonates as much if not more in our own time. After all, all wars are a legacy for the generations that follow. This production urges us to contemplate still our very human nature.