The Round Earth Company, dir. Richard Davey
The Theatre Royal, Friday 24 July, 2009.
(Also touring extensively in Tas, Vic, NSW, and Qld until September)
I’m not an Australian by birth. I didn’t grow up with the ANZAC spirit in my veins. So my connection to the war story at the heart of this production might be a little different to that of many other Australians. But then, it isn’t a story of nationalism, or even of political stance for or against war. It is a story of humanity (or inhumanity), and stamina, and of the importance of song in the lives of a group of POWs in Changi during the Second World War.
Richard Davey’s script (which he also directs) is based on his research into the lives of many Australian soldiers held captive during WW2. While the play is firmly rooted in historical fact, it does not stumble over that too-often fatal line between truth and drama. The characters are drawn with care and performed with sensitivity although some occasionally, in the service of comic relief, border on the silly.
From the opening moment when the soldiers enter the space individually and then begin to sing together, there is a tangible sense of ensemble which moves beyond those ubiquitous Australian war-story tropes of camaraderie and mateship. This is a cast who trust each other, have worked tightly together in rehearsal, and have been well-directed as an ensemble and not a collection of solo actors. (Indeed, several of the cast were involved in the play’s first production, seventeen years ago in Hobart, so one would expect a certain degree of comfort.)
I can’t recall seeing an all male cast deliver such consistently strong dramatic performances – and they can all sing too! Particularly engaging performances come from Matt Wilson, Tim Priest, and Don Bridges – although the latter has a tendency to overplay the comedy. The play is emotionally and physically challenging: some of the extended scenes depicting the physical labour on the Burma rail project are harrowing just to watch, let alone perform (or indeed, undergo the original experience). And the cast are mostly equal to the challenge. There are weak moments – and not always from the younger members of the cast, as might be expected. For example, in some particularly complex physical scenes, dialogue was completely lost under sound effects and a lack of awareness of the dynamics of the stage in the Theatre Royal. Perhaps some of these difficulties will be ironed out with a few more runs of the show. (The same may be true of some technical distractions – the Japanese soldier’s voice-overs are too loud, abrasive, and irritating to bear, despite this being part of the purpose of their presence; and a series of archival images projected against the scrim are almost invisible and completely wasted.)
Aside from a strong cast, the other “character” in this narrative is the choir. Music is omnipresent in the show, whether in the soundtrack, onstage with the boys, or with the choir who, in this performance, occupied a large section of the stalls. This is somewhat disconcerting, particularly if you find yourself seated right beside them. Which is a pity, because the choir’s contribution is moving and necessary. It gives the audience a sense of the importance of song and performance to these men: their concerts in the camps really might have been what got them through the horrors of POW life. The Hobart chorus was the Tasmanian Song Company, and the touring production will be supported by community choirs at each of its locations – an example of The Round Earth Company’s ability to connect to and embrace its audiences.
Although there is much to commend this production, the second half lost momentum (and not simply in the sense that the men themselves were waiting and waiting for the war to end). The original ran nearly five hours, and although several hours have been removed, I think the script could still benefit from some editing. I would particularly like to see a red pen wielded vigorously around the closing scene, where the truisms and caricatures resisted in the rest of the production broke through with a vengeance. I’m afraid the line “not saints and heroes ... just men who stuck it out” went right off the scale in my cliche-ometer, and it seemed a pity to end such a strong show in this way.