Gallipoli is a huge technical achievement by any standards. It is, of course also a co-creation by the STC’s Actors Company with two dozen 3rd-year NIDA students serving, fairly literally, as cannon fodder. And a swathe of production people.
It’s an epic tale realized to epic proportions.
It is, above all else, a Nigel Jamieson production. A director with a background in British theatre responsible in this country for a great list of notable epic events: the outdoor Red Square events at Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide Fesitval, The Theft of Sita, Kelly’s Republic for the Sydney Opera House, Honour Bound (the David Hicks story), the new opera Dead Man Walking. All multiple award-winners.
This is just dipping into an extraordinary CV – before mentioning Jamieson’s artistic direction of the 25 hour ABC Millennium Broadcast, connecting ceremonial events across the nation; the Tin Symphony sequence for Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. And there’s more!
So there is a kind of inevitability that Jamieson’s big imagination would at some point arrive at the STC, now it has access to a large venue in the Sydney Theatre on Hickson Road, and a large-cast precedent has been set, thanks to Barrie Kosky in The Lost Echo – drawing on the potential ‘mass effect’ of year-full of NIDA students to add volume, colour and movement.
Of which there is no shortage in this production.
Jamieson says he has chosen the story of Gallipoli as it is one of this nation’s great sources of myth. Personally I see it as more of a beat-up than a myth, but we won’t go there or I’ll be branded next as one of those people who claim there was no holocaust.
My own views do not diminish the challenge of bringing a filthy, miserable battlefield to the stage, segued with divertissements of blarney from a London-ensconced military hierarchy, and diverse actions – domestic and political – from ‘home’.
Program notes give you a good idea of how much research Jamieson put into the work. Starting with Les Carlyon’s book, Gallipoli; wading through newspaper archives from the war years; examining personal testimonies, letters, official papers – and whatever other primary documents he could get his hands on. The memories of Charles Bean, who founded the Australian War Memorial and went on to write the ‘official’ history, feature in the work and he appears as a character in the story.
Jamieson says over 90 percent of the text is ‘original’, in the sense that it has been drawn directly from the testimonies cited above. What Jamieson then does is shape and sculpt this vast mass of data into an exceedingly succinct and elegant shape. For such a massive show to present itself, seemingly, without a hitch on opening night is close to miraculous – when you consider not only the large cast, but full use of the stage space including walls, and floor (lots of pop-up scenes), and massive photographic backdrops.
At some point in this review I have to flip the switch. Acknowledging all the above, I found the event alarmingly unmoving. I discovered nothing knew in this telling of the tale; and I felt virtually nothing for the soldiers’ horrendous predicament. In doing such an amazing job of shaping a chaotic war zone, and all the goings-on behind it, into meaningful form, something necessary for theatre has been bypassed. There is no Mother Courage at the centre of this story, this is epic without a centre. It lacks a central through-line beyond ‘what happened next’. We have no one we care about to hang on to, to live alongside, to hang our hearts on.
Jamieson misses even the one opportunity in easy reach. Every line of the text is declaimed at much the same ‘documentary’ pitch. Yet there are many occasions when the onslaught could have stopped; for one of our very capable Actors Company players to halt the action and speak from the heart. Pamela Rabe has great slabs of script, but like everyone else she has been asked to do little more than megaphone ever more ‘plot’. And what of all the lovely little bits from letters back home and the like? There is heartbreak there begging to be released.
I’m not going to kick this production around like an unloved dog. It is too big a technical achievement. But, given the effort and invention that goes into it, the impact is disappointingly minimal.
Sydney Theatre Company presents the STC Actors Company and Third Year NIDA students in
By Nigel Jamieson
Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Season: 30 July – 23 August, 2008
Twilights: Monday 4, 11 And 18 August 6:30pm
Evenings: Tuesday – Saturday 8pm
Matinee: Wednesday 6, 20 August 1pm, Wednesday 13 August 12:15pm, Saturdays 2pm
Night With Actors: Monday 11 August 6.30pm – Post-Show Discussion With The Cast & Creative Team
Tickets: $77 / $62 Concession Matinee $68 / $56 Concession
Bookings: STC Box Office (02) 9250 1777 / Ticketek 132 849 / sydneytheatre.com.au/gallipoli
Director Nigel Jamieson brings a cast of almost 40 performers to the stage of Sydney Theatre for Gallipoli, one of the most ambitious productions of the year. A multi-media work featuring aerial performance, choreography, live music, choral work and huge projected images, it brings together 12 members of the STC (Sydney Theatre Company) Actors Company and 23 third year acting students from NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art).
Going beyond the familiar tales of unquestionable bravery and sacrifice, Gallipoli explores what drove so many young people to enlist, and the glamorising of warfare before and since. Drawing on personal letters, diaries, film footage, photographs, memoirs, contemporary reportage, songs and official documents, the piece re-explores the bloody battle on the Gallipoli peninsular, from multiple perspectives.
Pamela Rabe from the STC Actors Company says of Nigel Jamieson (whose past work has included large-scale extravaganzas for things like Olympic and Commonwealth Game ceremonies): ‘he has the most extraordinary, chaotic and creative brain that I’ve ever encountered. He’s not a director who sits back and lets it all form ‘ he’s a man who’s used to standing in the middle of a football field shouting at people through a megaphone, so he’s always amongst it and isn’t afraid of the sound of his own voice.’
She says that one of the things Nigel was interested in is the gap between the legends of war and the stories told back home – and what really happened. ‘Though it’s repackaged for us annually on that one day of the year, the reality was that it was a much much longer campaign, with a lot of time spent digging into trenches and being stuck in horrible fettered conditions, where people didn’t have a hope in hell of surviving.’
‘There’s a lot on how the stories in the press were filtered and distorted in order to present a view of Australia and it’s cultural identity,’ she says. ‘There’s an incredible, rich history of archival material that Nigel got very excited about letting people experience in a different way. The stuff that often isn’t put into documentaries is the language of the press, and the language of poetry, prose and song ‘ all of which distorted the way Gallippoli was depicted.’
‘I think Nigel’s objective is to make people look at it in a different way, to examine and question the presupposed notions of what Gallipoli was and what it means to us culturally as a nation,’ says Pamela, ‘the work is not really telling us anything, it’s not even exploding myths or anything like that ‘ it’s literally inviting people to re-examine the history through the richness of a whole lot of material we don’t always get access to.’
Photo by Brett Boardman