Once on Chunuk Bair: celebrating a great defeat

Once on Chunuk Bair

by Maurice Shadbolt

Maidment Theatre

Until July 5

Many of the great events that nations celebrate are often the glorious defeats in which noble soldiers fight to the last man.

New Zealand  secured a place in history with the disastrous battle of Chunuk Bair, which is the basis for the play “Once on Chunuk Bair” of which Maurice Shadbolt said “I wanted to distil the entire New Zealand experience of the campaign between dawn and dusk in a single day - 8 August 1915, the day 700 or 800 soldiers of the Wellington Infantry Battalion took the summit of Chunuk Bair and for a few minutes had sight of the Dardanelles, the objective of the Allied offensive.”

Rather than cover the entire battle, which lasted for nearly two weeks Shadbolt wanted to follow the traditional unities of time, place and action. This use of the classical Greek dramatic form where action occurs offstage and is reported to the audience makes the play dependant on the words and delivery of the actors rather than dramatic action on stage.

This reference to classical Greece is further developed in the play with reference to the battle of Troy and characters such as Hector and Achilles. One of the characters notes that Troy is not far from where they are doing battle.

Even the way in which the almost vertical set (designed by John Verryt) with its niches in which the soldiers huddle is like a huge set of metopes or panels on a Greek temple

These classical allusions underscore the mythic quality of the play itself where each of the characters displays both heroic qualities and human frailties. They are universal heroes as well as common men.

It is said that the Anzac spirit and the birth of nationhood grew out of the battles such as Chunuk Bair and the play demonstrates the shared notions of leadership, comradeship and the thread of anti-establishment which became part of the New Zealand psyche.

As well as presenting the heroism of individuals, it also shows the incompetence of leadership and the horrors and privations that the soldiers had to endure, which would rarely be talked about in the future.

The cast of a dozen give remarkable performances with co-directors Ian Mune and Cameron Rhodes shaping a superb lineup of characters who act and speak with distinctive manners.

Their presence on stage is emphasised by the uniforms (designed by Tracey Collins), which are all variations on the New Zealand standard issue but each fitting something of the character of the individual. There is the immaculately turned out Lieutenant Harkness (Sam Snedden) whose uniform and demeanour remains crisp almost till the end while soldiers such as Scruffy (Tim Carlsen) and Otaki George (Taungaroa Emile) manage to stay reasonably scruffy the whole time.

As Colonel Connolly leading the troop of soldiers, Stephen Lovatt gives a brilliant performance as an officer who combines discipline with a liberal egalitarianism along with acknowledging the brutal realism of war and the incompetence of the high command

Like Connolly, most of the characters present flawed personalities, dealing with their mates and the battle in various ways. All have elements of the heroic but all have weaknesses and foibles which give them genuine human qualities.

All the actors provide an earthly grittiness managing to convey the drama and horror of war along with the small pleasures and the humour. There is Holy (Jordan Mooney the ex-bible teacher who is frustrated and confused by his religion and sergeant Frank (Kevin Keys), the communist whose ideals collide with his patriotism.

Shadbolt has given the men distinctly New Zealand qualities with the soldier's no nonsense practical approach to fighting while Scruffy who has to fix a machine gun searches for a piece of No 6 fencing wire. (The gun he is said to be fixing is a Vickers though what he actually has on stage is a Browning). One character who appears to be inserted in the battle as an almost comic entertainer is Signalmen Bassett (Byron Coll) “who could put a line through to God.” He enters and exits reporting on the progress of the battle and is the one soldier who seems to be merely doing his job, unaware of the death and destruction around him. For his actions during the battle he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only recipient of the award from that battle.

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