Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

31/03/2007 - 05/05/2007

Production Details

(Le Vent des Peupliers) By GERALD SIBLEYRAS
Translated by TOM STOPPARD

HEROES is Tom Stoppard’s award-winning adaptation of Gerald Sibleyras’ enchanting and delightfully whimsical comedy Le Vent des Peupliers, that took Paris by storm.  

HEROES which opened in the West End to ecstatic reviews and went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, has its NZ premiere in CIRCA TWO on Saturday 31st March at 7.30pm.

It’s 1959 and three First World War veterans are residents of a French Military Hospital.

Young and mischievous at heart, and still with an eye for the ladies, Gustave, Philippe and Henri meet every morning on their quiet terrace, spending their days looking over to the poplars on the horizon beyond and dreaming of escape. Will today be the day they finally make it to Indochina – or perhaps only as far as the top of the hill?

Starring a dream cast of three of New Zealand’s top senior actors – Ken Blackburn, George Henare, Ray HenwoodHEROES is directed by award-winning director Ross Jolly – ART, Waiting for Godot, An Inspector Calls, Master Class, The Underpants, The Shape of Things, Democracy.

For Ken, George and Ray, HEROES provides fantastic roles that are great fun to play, and a wonderful script by master wordsmith, Tom Stoppard. It also gives them the chance to finally realise a dream of their own – to work together in the same play.

Although each of them has worked with the others in differing combinations over the years – on stage and in film and TV – this is the first time that all three will be working together at the same time!


Set Designed by JOHN HODGKINS
Lighting Design by JEN LAL
Costume Design by GILLIE COXILL

Stage Manager  - Joanna Stier
Operator - Marcus McShane
Sound - Jeremy Cullen, Ross Jolly
Publicity - Claire Treloar
Graphic Design - Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography - Stephen A'Court
House Manager - Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House - Linda Wilson

Theatre ,

1 hr 30 mins, no interval

Très charmant

Review by Lynn Freeman 11th Apr 2007

Think a French stage version of Last of the Summer Wine, set in an old soldiers’ home in 1959.  Three curmudgeonly old codgers, physically and psychologically scarred by the war, plan their last great campaign – the great escape from the old chateau and the nuns who run it with military precision. They want out, not because of mistreatment so much as a need for adventure, as those around them die off.

Heroes is written by Gerald Sibleyras and translated (and apparently trimmed back) by wordsmith Tom Stoppard. 

The three veterans sit on the patch of land they have claimed as their own, a tiny terrace (gorgeously designed by John Hodgkins and painted by Eileen McCann) where they talk of everything and nothing – but most engagingly of past loves and sex – they talk a lot about sex. 

The three roles really are close to Compo and his mates in LOTSW, although these guys dress, as you’d expect of the French, much more suavely (and thanks to astute costume designer Gille Coxill).  And they lust after attractive young women not old Nora with her baggy stockings.

The parts fit George Henare, Ken Blackburn and Ray Henwood like tailor made wetsuits.  Henare’s Henri is the sane one (comparatively speaking, you understand), who goes on his daily walks despite his bung leg, and who almost manages to make their goal of escaping seem achievable.  As Philippe, Blackburn is in his element, making the old fellow who keeps passing out because of a war wound both charmingly vulnerable and wickedly funny.  Henwood’s Gustave is an altogether different man, from noble stock, much decorated for his bravery on the field, determined to always be in charge, yet literally terrified of leaving the confines of the chateau grounds.

Ross Jolly’s gift for directing comedy, combined with the well over 100 years of combined acting experience by his three surefooted cast, make for a très charmant evening out at the theatre. 


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Fantastic Production of an excellent play

Review by Kate Blackhurst 09th Apr 2007

AT THE RISK of gushing, I have to say this Tom Stoppard translation of Gerald Sibleyras’ Heroes is absolutely fabulous; a great script, superb acting and simple but effective staging, combine to make a perfect piece of theatre.

The setting is 1959 in a veteran’s home for retired soldiers. Henri (George Henare), Philippe (Ken Blackburn) and Gustave (Ray Henwood) spend their days bickering on the back terrace – they don’t go to the front terrace because they are frightened of the moss. They are also frightened of Sister Madeleine, whom we never see but we hear about. She rules the veteran’s home with a rod of iron although she is only “a five foot nun with a runny nose”. Philippe believes in a conspiracy; people are being killed off because no two veterans are allowed the same birthday – “Sister Madeleine won’t allow it.”

Nothing much actually happens in the play, as the characters sit around ruminating on life, the universe and everything. They discuss starting up a band (with a piano and a triangle), their own funerals, and women. As Henri’s eyes light up at the discovery of a school for girls in the near vicinity he seems more of a silly old duffer than a lecherous pervert.

The trio dream of their escape with memories of youthful travels and boys’ own adventure. Although Gustave wants to flee to Indochina, they settle for the poplars on the brow of the hill, which represent the final front as they hear the wind in the trees beckoning to them – hence the original title of the play, Le Vent des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars). Although the mind is willing, the body is weak. Henri has one and a half legs and failing eyesight; Gustave is institutionalized to the point where he can’t leave the chateau (his daily routine consists of “room, terrace, tepid soup, bed”); and Philippe has hallucinations and dizzy spells thanks to a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain. Together, they are like the three wise monkeys, without the wisdom.

The trio of New Zealand’s leading actors command the stage. They are a cross between grumpy old men and naughty little schoolboys. They portray old age through their speech patterns and movements, standing stiffly, shuffling slowly and sitting awkwardly. The exercise routine in which Ken Blackburn puts them through their paces is a riot.

The script is tight and the dialogue fast-paced with judicious silences. It is billed as 90 minutes, and probably would have been if the audience could stop laughing – the experienced actors display precise timing, managing to deliver side-splitting lines with a straight face. They revel in the excellent dialogue as they squabble with the cruelty of good friends. Gustave tells Philippe he is “not insane but in strict need of medical attention”, and Henri “you limp like a bastard”. When Henri suggests going on a picnic, Gustave is disgusted and ridicules the idea. Not since Lady Bracknell’s infamous ‘handbag’ speech have two syllables been invested with such incredulous contempt.

The humour of Heroes renders its poignant moments all the more bittersweet. When the three salute the death of a resident, it is profoundly moving. Ross Jolly’s subtle and graceful direction enhances these moments. The audience can never forget that the war has defined these men’s lives and the sacrifices they have made.

The simple terrace with outdoor furniture and a smattering of leaves makes an excellent set, and the costumes of pin-striped suits, bow ties, knitted tank tops and waistcoats are set off, as befits ex-servicemen, with highly polished shoes. The only discordant note would have to be the music. The modern tunes played between the five scenes seem out of place. This is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a fantastic production of an excellent play.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Perfectly performed

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 03rd Apr 2007

The First World War song said that old soldiers never die; they only fade away. The translator of Heroes, Tom Stoppard, thinks that Gerald Sibleyras’s tender comedy about three French veterans "is about the fact that we don’t die. That something of us continues, even if it’s just somebody’s memory of us. Corporeal death is not the whole story."

Set in 1959 in a retired soldiers’ home in rural France, Heroes is concerned with Henri, Gustave and Philippe who have struck up, after 25 years of living in the home, a testy and testing friendship as they pass the time in the sun on their secluded terrace of the old chateau.

Nothing much happens. They argue and they get grumpy with each other over other inmates, the months of the year, the nuns who look after them, and whether or not a statue of a dog moved.

But in their boredom they start to imagine an escape from their imprisonment in life. Maybe they could manage a picnic. Gustave more ambitiously decides on a trip to Indochina. A compromise is reached: an expedition to a hilltop they can see from their terrace where the wind rustles the leaves of the poplar trees, but it entails crossing a couple of rivers and a steep climb up the hill.

As Philippe is "tolerably deranged", Henri lame and Gustave suffers from agoraphobia the poplar trees are unlikely to be achieved, but the planning goes ahead with blankets being acquired, a log book started and lessons in crossing rivers.

The original French title, a much better one that its English counterpart, translates as Wind in the Poplars; and it is the attempted epic journey to the poplars which encapsulates the playwright’s theme of "the universal desire to escape from the confines of your life."

The play has been seen as being similar in many ways to Waiting for Godot: the soldiers talk, go nowhere, and talk some more and wait for the end. But there is a soft, endearing centre to the play which is nothing like the stoic harshness and the steely poeticism of Beckett’s play. I can’t imagine Beckett approving of the whimsical final moment of Heroes for a second.

It’s the softer, endearing qualities that the three highly experienced and skilled old troupers, Ken Blackburn (Philippe), George Henare (Henri) and Ray Henwood (Gustave) play so beautifully in Ross Jolly’s sensitive, funny and carefully calibrated production, about which I have only one minor objection: the odd choice of music between scenes.

The intimacy of Circa 2 allows subtle details in the acting to be seen and appreciated as the trio displays their expertise like master musicians totally in control of their technique, their playing together, and their command over their characters and their dry sense of comedy. A marvelously entertaining, very funny and perfectly performed evening at the theatre.


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Vehicle for veterans

Review by John Smythe 01st Apr 2007

[This is the 100th production to be reviewed on theatreview this year – in less than 3 months!]

The best premise for comedy, an English expert once taught me, is to place your characters somewhere they don’t want to be. It sets up a natural resistance that generates dramatic energy.

This is certainly the starting point for Henri, Gustave and Philippe in Le Vent des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars) by French playwright Gerald Sibleyras.

Translated into English by Tom Stoppard, it is renamed Heroes, which refers ironically to the fading status of the play’s three World War One veterans, incarcerated in a Home for Veterans, circa 1959.

Conversely veteran actors George Henare, Ray Henwood and Ken Blackburn are clearly delighted to be working together for the first time as a trio, having each worked with one of the others in previous productions. Here, with equally venerable director Ross Jolly, they gather as ‘heroes’ to tell us the one about the optimist, the misanthrope and the paranoiac, facing their mortality.

Timing is another key to comedy and these three excel in that regard, not in a b-boom c-cha kind of way but altogether more subtly. They engage our empathy in their states of mind and their physical states of being. We live the experience with them, especially in the intimacy of Circa Two.

Obviously this outcome means the play is well crafted but don’t come along expecting the rich intellectual wit, existential metaphysics and theatrical ingenuities of your favourite Tom Stoppard plays. As the master said in a recent interview, he agreed to translate it (and he did some editing too, with Sibleyras alongside) because it was not the sort of play he would have written.

John Hodgkins’ stone courtyard set, lit by Jen Lal, evokes the old chateau-turned-hospice well, although it is always a shame when borrowed props like the garden furniture and a cast-iron bulldog cannot be ‘broken down’ to appear as weathered as the setting, let alone the characters.

Hop-along Henri is a ‘carpe diem’ kind of guy. Off on his daily constitutional, he still has an eye for the ladies. George Henare is mercurial, boyish yet ancient; sparking then dampened. Should we cheer Henri’s optimism or pity his self-delusion?

His diametric opposite is the misanthropic Gustave, all dressed up not so much with nowhere to go as an inability to move from the ‘trench’ he therefore hates so much. As Ray Henwood reveals the vulnerability behind Gustave’s defensive negativity, we cannot but contemplate the reasons for his agoraphobia.

Initially Philippe seems to be the amenable, malleable peacemaker, albeit given – thanks to unremoved shrapnel – to nodding off unexpectedly: a running gag replete with pathos. Ken Blackburn’s understated comic style intensifies the deep-set emotions that have alienated him from his sister and put him in fear of his life at the hands of Sister Madeleine … Perhaps the ‘delusion of grandeur’ side of his paranoia is his waking fantasy that he can still "take them from behind".

The fourth character is the aforementioned iron bulldog, and their collective horizon of hope is marked by a line of poplars waving in the breeze: prison bars pretending not to be; sirens on the shore of eternity …

The perceived need to defend their turf then escape their ‘prison’ helps to lift their days beyond the humdrum. And given the clear realisation that nothing will actually change for these men, the touch of magic realism that gives the play its dramatic resolution is welcome.

Ross Jolly and his cast distil the work to such a piquant essence it is tempting to think Le Vent des Peupliers/Heroes has hidden depths. Why, I am tempted to ask, has a playwright born in 1961 chosen to set his play in 1959 and characterise veterans of the First World War rather, for example, than veterans of the resistance in WWII?

Why do the men have no children or grandchildren and little else in the way of family? Are these meaningful choices or convenient omissions? Could there be allegorical dimensions in this look at lives that echo, perhaps, the extraordinary changes France has faced over the same period: is this what we’ve come to? Et alors? Does it have the "Beckettian" dimension Jolly claims in his programme note?

I find myself unable to substantiate the work to that degree. It is simply what it is: a competently constructed vehicle for veteran actors that reminds us to value age, resistance and timing.


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