Remembrance (Hamer Hall, Melbourne)

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The ANZAC legacy has always been a problematic one. Some 420,000 Australians enlisted to fight in World War I. Almost 60,000 of those were killed. And this from a country with a population of less than 5 million. An immense sacrifice – but for what cause?
“When we went in there we was nobody,” says Wacker, a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign in Alan Seymour’s One Day of the Year, “When we came out we was famous. Anzacs. Bally-hoo. Photos in the papers. Famous. Not worth a crumpet”.
That’s the apparently irresolvable tension right there. We are compelled — naturally enough — to call the diggers heroes and to put their photos in newspapers and to carve their names on monuments. But what is the value of their sacrifice? Was it worth it?
We’re haunted by the probability that it was not.
Victorian Opera’s Remembrance is a work almost entirely hollowed out by this habituated national doubt. Here, it is as though we find the ANZACs remembered only because they are the ANZACs. They are praised for their enthusiasm and their ribald fun, and for their courage and their capacity to endure.
Does their sacrifice have no larger meaning, except that they were young and willing? Are there no broader resonances? Is there no larger story for the nation in their suffering? If not, what is the point of public or official remembrances?
It all makes for a strange way to mark the centenary of ANZAC.
In formal terms, the show is a sort of multimedia narrative concert, a rudimentary docudrama with plenty of historical colour: sometimes wistful and sometimes irreverent, but clear-eyed about the realities of war.
Written and directed by Rodney Hall, with music arranged and conducted by Victorian Opera’s artistic director Richard Mills, it traces in broad outline the history of Australia’s involvement in the Great War.
Naturally enough, it begins with that infamous shot heard around the world, the one that killed Archduke Ferdinand and set the infernal dynamo in motion.
On that shot, the orchestra leaps to life, hurtling like the rumour of war itself, excited strings and brass chased by the vagrant staccato of a snare drum. When the news reaches Australia, no-one knows quite what to make of it. Where’s Sarajevo? What’s Austria got to do with us? Soon enough the young recruits are rushing to sign up and fight once more under the banner of Empire, dreaming of adventures in exotic lands.
This opens the first chapter — enlistment. Next we farewell the ships sailing out of Fremantle, before settling in with the diggers as they earn their reputation for anti-British larrikinism beside the pyramids of Egypt. Then it’s the horror of Gallipoli and the terrifying mud and noise of France.
Beneath the slick orchestration there’s something rough and collage-like about Remembrance — in fact it’s best quality. Much of the text is taken from actual letters written by the troops back to Australia. And the evening is highlighted by the performance of a dozen or so songs from the period, tunes such as Leslie Vane’s Our Tommy from the Land of the Kangaroo, a cheeky version of Long Road to Tipperary, and the traditional Wild Colonial Boy. There are also bush ballads and poems by CJ Dennis, as well as a lot of bawdy and subversive ditties.
In arraying this Australiana, Hall seems to be making the same point that Paul Keating made in 2013 — that there was nothing missing in our young nation that required the “martial baptism” of a European cataclysm. Australian servicemen and women already had their national identity with them: they didn’t find it on a beach near the Bosphorus.
Musically, although there are all sorts of sentimental ballads and perky marches, the evening has a persuasive unity. Between musical snapshots, the score skips and races, flashy and dangerous, always alive. A large community choir fills out the sound, and creates some particularly memorable effects — such as during the embarkation scenes.
Throughout, we also get a steady stream of archival images projected across the back of the Hamer Hall stage, illustrating the various chapters.
Hall’s sympathies are very much with the troops. Over and again he hymns their valour, usually in their own words, these “men as game as they make them”. And yet one of the paradoxes of Remembrance is that it fails to bring forth any individual characters on which to fix these sympathetic feelings.
If the show lacks poignancy, or feels empty, it’s perhaps as much to do with the fact that we never actually meet any of the young men and women who are being celebrated, or not until the final moments of the show when the details of ten or so Victorians who served are flashed across the screen. Although the troops speak for themselves, they remain blurry as individuals. This is so even in the archival images. There are lots of landscape shots, and lots of large group pictures, but surprisingly few portraits.
ARIA-award-winning tenor David Hobson sings the part of a war correspondent, ostensibly the show’s narrator, but there’s little depth to the role, only generalised compassion.
What ends up being remembered by Remembrance is an attitude: the iconoclastic larrikin, doughty under fire, egalitarian in his politics and always willing to help out a mate. But surely an attitude is inadequate ground to sustain the ANZAC Day tradition? Remembrance will continue touring Victoria through August and September: it’s terrific that regional audiences will be able to hear this work and make up their own minds what that tradition should mean.
And it has only been 100 years. The ANZAC legend will continue to confound and provoke — and no doubt inspire — artists. Indeed, it’s worth noting here that Sydney Chamber Opera’s extraordinary production of Elliot Gyger’s Fly Away Peter, based on the World War I novella by David Malouf, has been programmed as part of this year’s Melbourne Festival.
Of course we need more than Long Road to Tipperary and Wacker’s balley-hoo. But what? This eclectic piece of musical drama, no matter its weaknesses, does at least use the stage to ask that question and to open up new perspective on our collective struggle with the problem of remembrance. And along the way, without overstating the glories of war, it does convey a sense of the pity and journey of the War.
[box]Remembrance was performed in Melbourne on August 13. It will be performed at Bendigo (August 15), Wodonga (August 31), Warragul (September 3) and Shepparton (September 12).[/box]

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