[Honour & Horror]
Theatre can do certain tones well. Visceral dread is not usually one of them.
Sister Anzac is the rare drama that manages to feel like a completely theatrical yet horrifically immersive experience.
Told from the perspective of three green New Zealand Red Cross nurses and their formidable matron, Sister Anzac (written by Geoff Allen) presents the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme as you rarely see them — a literal horror show of bloody limbs, open wounds and relentless misery.
Gallipoli is often couched as a noble sacrifice, the place where New Zealand grew up. Sister Anzac shows it for what it was, and it is a testament to everyone involved that this important moment in New Zealand history is played without sentiment and an unflinching honesty.
Much of the credit must go to the cast. Pound for pound, this ensemble is excellent. Anthea Hill plays the lead, Elsie, a naive nurse-in-training who is dropped into the middle of the Dardanelles campaign with little knowledge or understanding of what she has got into. Nicola Kawana plays the religious Sister Hilda, who has a love of spoons, and possesses the power to read tea leaves (the two go hand in hand). David Capstick plays Colonel Carter, a military surgeon with little time for the female contingent, while Jordan Blaikie adds a welcome touch of humour to his role as Elsie’s wounded beloved, Sergeant Harry Young.
Particular standouts are Donogh Rees as Matron Corkingdale and Alex Ellis as Sister Maggie Haynes. Rees hides a compassionate heart beneath a steel veneer, keeping her group of nurses on an even keel while they fight an often-losing battle against the tide of dying men coming back from the front. Playing the joker of the group, Ellis provides a much needed levity to the group’s bleak situation. As the war grinds on, Maggie’s easy-going veneer begins to slowly crumble, and Ellis plays this turn perfectly.
John Parker’s simple but effective set design manages to convey a sense of verisimilitude without any extraneous detail, while the music and sound design by Thomas Press & Morgan Allen is ever-present but never overbearing. This is a show that recognises the power of silence.
The direction by Amanda Rees is perfectly pitched. The sequences of the nurses at work should feel completely ridiculous — they are played out as mime, with the patients and their wounds left to the imagination. And yet, the acting and the mise-en-scene ensure that such aspects of the production never come off as silly.
Sister Anzac could have felt relentlessly bleak — and potentially monotonous — yet the show is packed with moments of warmth and comedy which enrich the experience. These moments of respite give the audience a chance to breath, and a chance to enjoy the characters in their rare moments of downtime.
Overall, Sister Anzac is an exceptional piece of work that provides an understated, human look at one of history’s greatest tragedies.
Sister Anzac is presented by Stark Theatre and plays at Q Loft until 28 August. Details see Q.