REVIEW: Once On Chunuk Bair (Auckland Theatre Company)

Once on Chanuk Bair by Maurice Shadbolt, directed Ian Mune, co-director Cameron Rhodes , Auckland Theatre Company; photographed by Michael Smith

Once was Enough  [by Matt Baker]

Once on Chanuk Bair by Maurice Shadbolt, directed Ian Mune, co-director Cameron Rhodes , Auckland Theatre Company; photographed by Michael Smith
Once on Chunuk Bair by Maurice Shadbolt, directed Ian Mune, co-director Cameron Rhodes , Auckland Theatre Company; photographed by Michael Smith

The fact that the temporary capture of Chunuk Bair was the only success for the Allies in the Gallipoli Campaign at the expense of hundreds of men’s lives is a perfect example of the futility of war. It is a landmark in New Zealand history and requires little reminding: lest we forget, indeed. The opportunity, then, to see life breathed into the men who fought and died is an exciting, if not, macabre, prospect, and one that could result in a truly cathartic experience for Kiwi audiences.

The show starts off promisingly, with Wesley Dowdell and Andrew Grainger establishing an honest and humorous dynamic between two men with little in common other than the situation in which they find themselves. This introductory relationship, however, is then attempted with other pairings and clumsily interjected throughout the play. These unmotivated conversations stick out of the script glaringly, as opposed to the humanity of the play being peppered evenly throughout and eventually culminating into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Stephen Lovatt diligently drives the play and creates full dimension to his character through his particularisations. Sam Snedden provides an excellent balance between Lovatt and Kevin Keys, his stiff upper lip giving way to his abrupt and historically enthused mobility. Keys plays off Lovatt and Snedden well in the first act, but imbues his performance with emotional and vocal affectations as his insubordination arises in the second.

Tim Carlsen, Taungaroa Emile, and Byron Coll stand out particularly with their strong characterisations and simple yet focussed objectives, but, for others, the character journeys in the script are underdeveloped and there is not much for them to work with. Jordan Mooney and Grainger especially do well to handle the capriciousness of their characters later in the play.

John Verryt’s obligatory raked set design provides a deceptive amount of depth as well as height, allowing co-director’s Ian Mune and Cameron Rhodes to choreograph the stage direction and tableaux with great precision. Some dialogue, however, is lost due to the problematic upstage focus. Sean Lynch’s lighting design is far too bold in the first act, with an almost blue-screen backdrop, before easing into a more subdued haunting glow in the second. Jason Smith’s sound design is disturbingly accurate, and Tracey Collins’ authentic costumes complete the all too real aesthetic. The forewarned guns and explosions deliver more than they promise.

While the danger is raised with each military manoeuvre enacted, the stakes of the play ironically stagnate through their repetitive nature. This very structure of the narrative, coupled with the audience’s role as spectators with the clarity of hindsight, should infuriate us and evoke a sense of sorrow at the cyclical descent. Instead, it just becomes rather boring. The narrative flow is also hindered by the interval between the acts, and I would argue that although the one-hour forty-minute running time is slightly longer than a traditional one-act full-length play, it would benefit the audience to endure the entire play in one sitting and leave with a sense of having experienced a more relentless event.

The Gallipoli Campaign is often thought to be the event that conceived our national consciousness, a point which is excellently addressed when Colonel Connolly (Lovatt) and Lieutenant Harkness (Snedden) talk about ‘home’. However, while the term ‘fern leaf’ gave me some sense of symbolic pride, I simply was not moved by this play. The pathos is intellectual, not emotional, and playwright Maurice Shadbolt does not offer any new insight beyond a step-by-step play of events reminder of the utter senselessness of it all. I doubt “Fuck your war” was considered a controversial opinion even at its 1982 premiere.

Once On Chunuk Bair is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at The Maidment until 5 July. Details see ATC.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Robbie Nicol

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