Letters from the front: Ensemble’s The ANZAC Project

As the Western world bands together to commemorate the various centenaries of the First World War, there is any number of concerts, plays, books, films, television series and CDs to mark the occasion. To mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, the Ensemble theatre is staging The ANZAC Project, a double-bill of two new plays, which looks at the event and asks ‘what does it mean to us, now, here, today?’ Ensemble theatre is not alone in asking these questions, but perhaps we should all be taking a leaf out of these umpteen commemorations and asking ourselves ‘why is this military failure so celebrated?’
The ANZAC Project is comprised of two new plays – ‘Dear Mum and Dad’, by Geoffrey Atherden, in which a woman discovers a letter from her great-grandfather and learns of his experiences during World War I; and ‘Light Begins To Fade’, by Vanessa Bates, in which several stories intertwine, not least a group of television writers trying to find their way to tell the story of the Gallipoli landing, and the wider issues it opens up. While united in theme and idea, these plays work in very different ways and, ultimately, Bates’ is the more successful, the more theatrical.

Atherden, best known to television audiences as the writer of Mother and Son, writes with a broad brush and his play tries to cover a lot of ground in forty-five minutes, more ground than it can perhaps reliably hold, and as a result feels like it’s been stretched too thin. In the present day, a woman and her husband find a box of letters and documents belonging to her great-grandfather who was at Gallipoli; as they read the letters, we see the wounded soldier on a hospital ship, when he’s back home in Australia before, during, and after the war, as well as in the trenches. As the play shifts between time periods, locations, and states of hallucination and clarity, the lines are blurred between what is happening until we’re not quite sure what actually is happening, what is real, what isn’t, and the play seems dramaturgically confused in this regard – what is the story here, what strand of the story is most important, what is the play trying to say? In an attempt to alleviate the horror and reality of war, Atherden incorporates jokes and snatches of music-hall routines and songs into his play; while these do bring a lightness to the play, it ultimately jars against the meditative mode he initially establishes – even though they are approximately of the period, the jokes themselves seem too modern, and the desired effect is somewhat diminished. Atherden also tries to problematise the Gallipoli myth and the glorification of war, but it too feels like it’s a beat that has been included because it’s a relevant issue, not because it is intrinsically part of the story itself. In a way, this is where ‘Dear Mum and Dad’ suffers most – it still feels very much like a draft of a piece; there are strands here which aren’t elaborated upon, strands that get lost among the broad reach of his lens, elements which are flagged on a large canvas but are not given the sensitivity and nuance they deserve; his characters, too, feel like caricatures, and in a play like this, these are some of the things you want to avoid most of all.
On the other hand, Bates’ play – ‘Light Begins To Fade’ – is nuanced and quite delicate. Ultimately a play about mothers and sons, it has a lightness to its inquisitiveness, a charm to its problematising which makes for disarming and haunting viewing. Comprised of a series of short scenes with four or five different groups of people, Bates skilfully juggles her narrative strands, building them up to an elegant and powerful crescendo which is intensely moving. Here, a mother watches her son play football amongst older boys, hoping he won’t get hurt; a mother pleads for her youngest son not to be sent to the front, fearing her oldest son is already dead, fearing the telegrams that arrive daily; a group of television writers try to work out the key that will help them tell the story of the Gallipoli campaign; a group of soldiers cross the water in the pitch black dark to a beach in Turkey; decades later a soldier confronts a ghost from his past… All these strands emerge as part of Bates’ tapestry of a play, the resonances in each strand combining to create a unique portrait of conflict, war, cultural memory, and the act of commemoration.
Mark Kilmurry directs here with economy and simplicity, recognising that less is often more. While ‘Dear Mum and Dad’ comes across as heavy-handed and forced, there is enough movement and nimbleness in the staging to suggest the heaviness is only in the text. In ‘Light Begins To Fade,’ Kilmurry allows the juxtapositions in Bates’ storytelling to do a lot of the work, and while the staging is necessarily fluid and economical enough to keep everything moving, his conception of the Gallipoli landing is haunting, as close to poetry as we might be able to get in this theatre on this occasion. And as the lights begin to fade at the end, we see a cross marked in light on the back wall, four helmets underneath it in solemn commemoration. Verity Hampson’s lighting is clear, precise, effectively differentiating between times, stories, and locations, and does not intrude upon the story. Daryl Wallis’ sound design is effective, though nowhere near as loud as it could be for maximum effect.

While well-meaning and staged with simplicity and poetic economy, it is a pity that only half of this ANZAC project is worth writing home about.

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