REVIEW: Brass Poppies (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth

Brass Poppies

[Chunuk Stripped Bair]

What a pleasure to be back at the Mercury Theatre tonight as a fitting period venue for Auckland Arts Festival’s and NZ Opera’s Brass Poppies.  Clearly an important milestone in New Zealand’s development as a nation, and as a catalyst for breaking away from the “motherland” – this piece is brave, important and essential.

In true Kiwi style it is told simply, focussing solely on the cobbers amongst the flying bullets and the gals they left back home.  The optimism and naivety of the young lads sent to war contrasts starkly with the worries of their loved ones.

A number of metaphors are utilised to contrast the horrors of war with the idyllic but lonely lot of the women that have been left behind, including a poker game, where luck is clearly something on the soldiers’ minds as they head into battle, and strangely it is washing lines that serve as a reminder of normal life at home.

Brass Poppies as its name connotes, is primarily about the dreadful tragedy of Chunuk Bair which claimed the lives of so many Kiwis more than a century ago.

Jointly written by composer Ross Harris and Liberettist Vincent O’Sullivan this opera definitely does what it says on the tin.  In fact at times the interpretation of the whole storyline could be construed as being somewhat literal.  And despite director Jonathan Alver’s rather two-dimensional storytelling, I feel it was Harris’ score and musical director Hamish McKeich’s astute music delivery that were a major saving grace.  I particularly liked the fact the music was totally in-tune, no pun intended, with the emotions being reflected on stage.  Likewise ‘the battalion’ of musicians were superb with an interesting combination of uniformed guitarist, accordion player, basoonist (at times resembling the rifles in the foreground) and many more.  The use of drum rhythms both on and offstage was particularly effective at enhancing each scene’s mood and tone.  As always a live ensemble on stage enhances any performance for me.  And the fact that they were skilfully kitted out in period military regalia, by renowned costumier Elizabeth Whiting, added yet another layer of authenticity to the visual spectacle on show tonight.

The regimented positioning of the army cobbers was understandable but I would have preferred a little more movement around the stage, which partners left behind – free and easy, but concerned and worried – could possibly have provided.

AV designer Jon Baxter’s split screen projections of the set were a highlight, as they enabled live action and historic footage to interact most compellingly.  This included shadows of war flickering across the backdrop as the newly recruited soldiers farewelled their loved ones.  In addition the uncredited set design is simple and efficient with army supply boxes cleverly doubling up as props and furniture.

The choreography by Maaka Pepene was in the thick of the action at all times, intensifying the atmosphere of the piece, especially during the battle scenes.  This was skilfully executed by dancers Taniora Rangi Motutere and Benjamin Mitchell.

Bass Wade Kernot (Fred) and mezzo soprano Sarah Court (Mrs Malone) were standouts for me.  However tenor Andrew Glover’s performance, when he played the Turk in the first half, was slightly baffling to its purpose.  In contrast in his representation of King and country, loyalty and patriotism Glover really came into his own.  His “endless supply of wreaths and cliches” being justifiably dismissed by the causualties of war.

Although entirely in English, the choice to have surtitles helped augment the more humourous moments in the show. However the actual physical height of the LED screen made it difficult to keep an eye on what was unfolding on stage.  Possibly relocating this would have elevated our enjoyment of the production as a cohesive whole.

For me, this piece is about loss – loss of life, innocence and futures.  Brass Poppies is plainly and honestly presented, which could either be a triumph or defeat for audiences. Personally I hope it’s the former.

Presented by Auckland Arts Festival, New Zealand Festival and New Zealand Opera, Brass Poppies plays at Mercury Theatre until 12 March.  Details see Auckland Arts Festival

SEE ALSO: Metro Magazine review by James Wenley 

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