Soundings Theatre, Te Papa
April 25 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

BASED on a book written by Jim Henderson, this play is not so much about World War II per se, as his experiences recuperating from it. He spent 715 days training as a gunner, 10 days in action in North Africa, and nineteen months in an Italian military hospital in Bari. The scene is instantly set by the crackling recording of guns, planes and bombs, and the narration is entirely in the present tense.

Michael Burton acts out the story with movements perfectly suited to his words; whether turning as gracefully as a dancer or shuffling like a punch-drunk boxer. Burton’s perfectly formed vowels and clear, calm diction guarantee we hear every word, even above the whining of children and the late arrivals flapping into their seats (does the fact that it is a free performance mean people fail to see need to show respect?).

Director Maggie Tarver strikes the perfect balance between emotional engagement and detached numbness. When Henderson says he cannot play trains with his nephew because he must go away to war, the six-year old asks ‘When Hitler and Goebbels are killed, will there be no more war, ever?’ Letters from home provoke extreme emotion; one man receives tidings of joy – there is a birth in the family – while the other learns of the death of his father.

The play never descends into mawkish sentimentality, retaining clarity and honesty. A man dying in the field simply means there is one less man to work the guns. The only way Henderson can deal with the practical horrors of warfare and the death of his comrades is to imagine the pain away, pushing it away from his body, down through his legs, and out of his feet. ‘This is curious. I must remember this. I can feel the bullet go through my foot.’

The futility of war is highlighted in the hospital. Henderson is woken by the Red Cross and German medics with needles, splints and bandages. He feels no enmity toward a German soldier, admitting, ‘We both helped to smash each other up’, and his German doctor tells him, ‘Your war is over; we are friends now’. But we never learn: the Boer War manual has been written, rewritten and reworked for various wars. The words have changed from ‘Don’t expose yourself unnecessarily’ to ‘keep your head down if you don’t want a bullet in it’ but the sentiment is the same.

When the doctor asks Henderson why he came all the way from New Zealand to fight in Libya, he replies, ‘You took Austria, then Czechoslovakia, then Poland. We thought you would take France then England, and we knew England meant New Zealand so we thought we’d better stop you.’ There is no mention of the genocide of six million Jews, perhaps implying that this is a justification we used afterwards to defend our actions. But the strength, unity, power and courage of these men who fought to protect their freedom and that of others should also be celebrated. If it came down to a nation’s civil liberties, rather than oil, would we stand up again?

Humour also helps to dull the pain, and Henderson finds it even in the depths of despair. A ward sister overhears one of the soldiers saying that ‘things are bloody grim’. When she asks him to translate he is embarrassed to swear before a lady so he tells her that it means ‘God bless you’ and the soldiers smother their smiles as she makes her rounds, pronouncing this bizarre benediction.

If I have one criticism, it is one that is consistent with much wartime literature: the women are dimensional, as they are either angels or dragons. Sister Theresa has a ‘face like a bulldog drowned in vinegar, rattling with rosaries; clanking with crucifixes’. Another nurse, ‘stooped to soothe the pain from agonised faces’. Their portraits are drawn with such delightful language, however, that this is forgivable.

The lighting of this show deserves special mention, although there are no programmes to tell me who to credit. The love/hate relationship with the sand is depicted through subtle shifts in lighting – the men curse the ‘harsh dead sand’ but when they try to hide in it, they accept its welcoming embrace and ‘rose coloured mist’. As Henderson faints in agony, a perfect theatrical blackout is affected.

Lighting and a chair are all the props Burton needs to weave a captivating spell for the full sixty minutes. He uses all parts of the stage, including the wheelchair access ramp as he holds onto the handrail and sways erratically, talking to ‘The man on the Wellington tram’. The large empty stage heightens the sense of isolation as he is so far away from home. There is a lump in many a throat by the end of this piece of flawlessly distilled theatre, and as hauntingly uplifting Bless ‘Em All echoes from the auditorium, we must ensure that we will never forget.