Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Dreaming Hill - Western Australian Youth Theatre Company & Southern Edge Arts (15 April 2015)

One hundred years ago our youth were asked to fight a terrible war far beyond our shores at immeasurable cost - soldiers as young as 14 died on the Gallipoli Peninsula and later on the fields of France and Belgium. In this centenary year, a year that will see many commemorations to honour the deeds of those men and women who served both at home and abroad, it is particularly fitting that the Western Australian Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo) in partnership with Southern Edge Arts commissioned this original play. Written by Hellie Turner, The Dreaming Hill explores the day before that fateful landing on 25 April 1915.

The cast of predominantly teenagers from both companies - including a 14 and 15 year old – was a powerful reminder that in another age these were the very people who served our country as soldiers and nurses in the chaos of ‘the war to end all wars’. The tragedy of what followed was captured eloquently in a line delivered by a Greek fisherman to a young Australian serviceman – “only dead men see an end to war.” The fact that we still put young men and women in harm’s way to this very day illustrates the point. The clear message was to us as an audience, as a community and as a country to never forget the cost exacted to protect our freedoms. 

The play follows five Australian diggers and four nurses with their Matron as they spend a last day on the Greek island of Lemnos before the amphibious assault. They encounter various locals including the aforementioned fisherman, Spyros (Luke Binetti); a good-natured shyster, Ascesto (Lachlan McGregor), who promises girls, grog and garlic while protecting the honour of his beautiful sister Phoebe (Liannah Prior); with a haughty ‘witch’ (Zali Stipanicev) thrown in for good measure. There are portents of impending doom from the flock of crows that fly overhead to a speech by Spyros about chaos. For the lads though there is a mix of excitement, apprehension, and naivety which is beautifully counterpointed by the nurses who know (and have trained for) the deadly ramifications of what is about to come. The hospital ship that they will shortly return to is another potent symbol by its very presence offshore.

The script by Turner is lyrical and poetic with one of the soldiers, Leo (Campbell Greenock) himself a ‘philosopher-warrior’ quoting Shakespeare, reciting his own attempts at poetry, and having conversations with Spyros about Homer’s The Illiad. The beauty of the island and its people is nicely conveyed as is all the exuberance and impetuousness of youth. But the script never loses sight of what is to come with references to Death, Chaos and symbolism like The Ferryman intruding. In the most powerful sequence, the fragile romance and tenderness on display at the end of the party is torn apart by a flash forward to only a few hours hence with sickening detail. It is wonderful piece of theatre as we have come to identify and even care about these characters only to have their possible futures blown apart before our eyes. Equally impressive is the company intoning each of their character’s fate on the day and beyond in a chilling postscript.

The acting is very strong across the board – from the innocent flirtatiousness of the nurses played by Daisy Coyle, Mikayla Merks and Tahlia Norrish to the over-exaggerated accent of the New Zealand nurse (Michaela Barker) used for comic relief. Tess McKenna reins in their antics as the stern Matron and is decisive and calm as the glimpse of battle shows us the grim reality of war.

Greenock opens the play by walking onto the impressive outdoor set as a modern day teenager before stripping down and changing into his uniform. It was a potent message – what would it be like to step into their shoes given all we now know. He gave a well measured performance that grounded the more poetic elements within the context of the horror to come. He has a particularly fine moment with a rallying speech towards the end of the play exhorting the men to “go forth” as the time of battle draws ever nearer. The only slight drawback was the string of lights in front of him that had lowered for part of the party sequence that cast shadows over and partly obscured his face from my vantage point. 

Liam Longley’s and Thomas Blowffwitch’s characters both try their luck with romance, Longley to sweet effect; Blowffwitch’s to amusing reversal. Andrew Phillips was a stout physical presence as Frank which made sense on reading the program notes to see he has served with the Australian Army – his bearing and demeanour was perfect for the character. While not as accomplished, Austen Faulkner’s Harry was the decent kid from Fremantle out of his depth in both war and love but had some nice moments all the same.
The standouts for me were Binetti and McGregor, the former working well with Greenock as they discussed Aristotle and Homer and the nature of war and chaos. Binetti has that intangible quality that makes him eminently watchable even when prowling on the outskirts of the set. McGregor, on crutches no less after breaking his ankle a fortnight ago, was sly and mischievous, providing a lot of humour to lighten the stark knowledge of these people’s likely fate.

Director Renato Fabretti makes full use of the set as his actors clamber over sandbag emplacements and literally feel the soil under their feet. There was a tendency in the party sequence, however, as soldiers and nurses paired off, for the actors not in whatever featured duo was talking, to be impassively waiting for ‘their turn’. Live music is provided for atmosphere to one side of what really is a thrust arrangement with the audience enclosing two sides of the courtyard at the Museum. External street noise was minimal and not too invasive, even from the movie playing on the big screen in the cultural centre.

Overall this was a wonderfully acted, evocatively written, and well directed play that looked at a brief moment of joy and discovery before being wrenched into the horrible reality of war. That it was performed by actors the very age of the men and women being portrayed gives it special significance and it is a thoughtful and powerful addition to the ANZAC canon.

Directed by Renato Fabretti, Written by Hellie Turner and starring Michaela Barker, Luke Binetti, Thomas Blowffwitch, Daisy Coyle, Austen Faulkner, Campbell Greenock, Liam Longley, Lachlan McGregor, Tess McKenna, Mikayla Merks, Tahlia Norrish, Andrew Phillips, Liannah Prior, Sam Reeves and Zali Stipanicev, The Dreaming Hill runs until 18 April in the WA Museum courtyard before moving to the Albany Museum 23-26 April.  

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