King and Country

Mayfair Theatre, 100 King Edward Street, Kensington, Dunedin

07/10/2006 - 10/10/2006

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

24/02/2006 - 01/03/2006

Otago Festival of the Arts

Production Details

Written by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Conrad Newport

Co-produced by New Zealand International Arts Festival, Christchurch Arts Festival, Lake Taupo Arts Festival, Nelson Arts Festival, Tauranga Arts Festival, the Southern Lakes Festival of Colour

A powerful and evocative drama based on personal accounts of New Zealanders during World War 1. Stories of Mâori and Pakeha soldiers, nurses and civilians are interwoven with treasured New Zealand war songs and hymns, sung to the accompaniment of a live brass band.

Dena Kennedy
Jason Hood
Jamie McCaskill
Rob Mokaraka
Nick Dunbar
Craig Geenty

Theatre ,

1 hr 30 min, no interval

Fearsome realities faced with song and humour

Review by Clarke Isaacs 10th Oct 2006

As a stage pastiche of the war to end all wars, King & Country, which opened a short season at the Mayfair Theatre on Saturday night, is a superb evocative offering.

The cast of five actors, filling the roles of New Zealand soldiers caught up in the fearsome toils of World War 1, captured well the sinew and the spirit of those who went abroad to fight the foe, far too many of whom never returned to their native land. Representing gentle womanhood with the hands of solace was a nurse.

The good-sized audience on opening night was unstinting in its appreciation of a well-crafted production which melded individual observations and bodily actions from the troops with their talented singing and well-controlled tune bursts from the St Kilda Brass Band. The many songs and musical interludes, stirring the emotions, were first-class.

I’ll warrant there were plenty of moist eyes among the patrons as the manifold sacrifices of colonials on the altar of British misjudgement and inefficiency were pointed out by these few five, representing Pakeha and Māori manhood, so eager to travel to distant destinations and chance their fighting arms.

Having drawn upon a variety of sources, writer Dave Armstrong has provided a great many snippets of information illustrating the sorry situations into which this country’s soldiers were drawn in the various campaigns of the war, beginning with the disaster which was Gallipoli through to the slaughterhouse-quagmires on the Western Front. Humour too abounded.

The soldiers, Craig Geenty, Jason Hood, Nigel Collins, Jade Daniels and Robert Lloyd, also lifted the curtain on the details of their precious, deserted domestic lives, as well as portraying the fearsome realities of life and sudden death and maiming in the most horrendous of conflicts. Dena Kennedy was the winsome nurse, who also spoke and sang.

Fictional though the characters were, they represented convincingly the thousands of New Zealanders who fought in the Great War.

I’m sure my granddaughter’s Bayfield High School social studies’ class will learn much when they attend a performance of King & Country which, directed by Conrad Newport, ends its season tomorrow.


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Cathartic theatre

Review by John Smythe 27th Feb 2006

While it boasts a splendid brass band, Dave Armstrong’s King and Country at Downstage has none of the theatrical bells and whistles that characterise Dr Buller’s Birds at Circa (see below), yet it offers all that is absent from that technology-rich show.

Thanks to the sure hand of a seasoned writer, Armstrong’s six characters – five soldiers and a nurse – take us on life-changing journeys that manifest whole lives, relationships and communities in our imaginations. They do this pinned to the stage by spotlights, addressing us more often than each other. Having marched them on, the New Zealand Army Band serves as their backdrop and – conducted by the multi-skilled Armstrong himself – they accompany the cast’s rendition of the fifteen World War One songs that punctuate their stories.

Nurse Rose McKenzie (Dena Kennedy) and her younger brother Lance Corporal Fred McKenzie (Jason Hood) are from a well-to-do family with entrenched loyalties to the British Empire and a firm belief that all able-bodied men must do their bit. Those who die make a glorious sacrifice for freedom and all we hold dear.

Privates Hori Ratanui (Jamie McCaskill) and Herewinin Muru (Rob Mokaraka) are from ‘The Bay’ and the Hokianga respectively, and they’re dead keen to prove themselves by fighting alongside their fellow New Zealanders, even though Herewini discovers his wife Kahu is pregnant.

Their Commander, Lieutenant Terence Gilbert (Nick Dunbar), has seen action in South Africa, is happily married to Millicent and his deeply patronising view of the Maori boys reflects a widespread racial prejudice. At the opposite end of the social and commitment spectrum, Albert George Burnett (Craig Geenty), from a remote part of the Wairarapa, just goes with the flow with his mate Tiny Thornley. But he does propose to Florrie on the eve of departure.

Their collective naiveté creates a toxic cocktail of euphoria as they weather their training and embark, at last, on their big adventure. While it’s an obvious set-up and there is nothing new in the idea, the thorough research (everything is sourced from first-hand writings), the needle-sharp insightful script and the absolutely authentic realisation of each character by the actors – directed by Conrad Newport – ensure we share their journeys with increasing empathy.

Because each remains within each present moment, with none of the hindsight we bring to their histories, their inexorable progress through England, Egypt, Gallipoli, the Western Front and Passchendaele builds a powerful dramatic tension. The music and songs are deftly placed to deepen, complement or counterpoint the moment, or move the action forward.

Surprisingly it is Kennedy’s perfectly-pitched Rose and Dunbar’s crisp Lt. Gilbert who experience the greatest learning curves. McCaskill’s passionate Ratanui makes us confront a mind-bending moral dilemma. Mokaraka’s Muru plays the joker with touching pathos and Geenty’s Burnett draws comedy from his innocence (he really should have written to Florrie). Hood’s war-correspondent Fred is staunch to the last and his sudden death, while fetching water, is one of many devastating moments.

Everyone’s response will differ according to their own family’s war-related history. Indeed each actor tells us, at the end, what their personal connection to the content is. My mother’s father was lost in the mud and blood of Passchendaele so the horror of that vivid sequence was especially cathartic for me.

I defy anyone, in the wake of this experience, to argue war is the answer to anything. King and Country makes it absolutely clear that when the power to order attacks with highly destructive weapons resides with a few fallible commanders who remain remote from the action, miscommunications are inevitable. And when obedience to those orders is compulsory, appalling blunders and devastating carnage are also inevitable. To call ourselves civilised when this practice continues is clearly obscene.

As a co-production of the Christchurch, Wanaka, Lake Taupo, Nelson, Taranaki and Tauranga Arts Festivals along with the New Zealand International Arts Festival, King and Country comes to Wellington, some 20 performances on, in a highly distilled form. Congratulations to all who invested in its potential. We can only hope this development model will be used again.

Its next stops are Masterton and the Kapiti Coast.


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Engrossing, heart-felt entertainment

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Feb 2006

It’s not often an International Festival of The Art’s production receives a standing ovation on its second night but King and Country currently playing at Downstage did and deservedly so. 

And although the part the Anzac’s played in the Great War known as World War 1 has been ingrained in us for the last 80 odd years through the annual ANZAC services, somehow the intimacy and poignancy of this production was far more telling than standing under the Cenotaph on a freezing cold ANZAC morning. 

With no fancy lighting, ticks with trapeze wires or video cameras, this production is simplicity personified as it relates to us the stories of those New Zealand men and women who were part of the Great War.  Six actors, five men and one woman, stand on the edge of the stage and relate, from what must be personal experiences put together by writer Dave Armstrong, first Gallipoli and then after that was over, the war on Flanders fields and the horror of Passchendaele.

The Gallipoli story we know well but much is revealed in the second half about the part New Zealand soldiers played in the war in Europe and that as many died there as did at Gallipoli.  Armstrong also focuses a good deal of the production on the Maori soldiers that travelled to war using this in a subtle way to show the Pakeha attitude to Maoris back then as well as the effect the war had on these boys.

While keeping the pace moving director Conrad Newport allows his actors, all highly competent and confident, the freedom to make the characters and their stories real and believable which adds much to the authenticity of the piece.  Between sections of the story telling they sing, accompanied by members of the New Zealand Army Band, songs relevant to the moments of their story. 

The actors on the edge of the stage waving goodbye as the troop ship pulls out of Wellington harbour signing Now Is The Hour, both in English and Maori, or standing stock still singing the hymn Abide With Me as the role call of those who have fallen is read, are some of the most telling and heart felt moments of the production. 

But there are also many lighter moments to contrast with the more sombre ones, the impishness of the fun loving Maori, the naivety of the farm boy from Pahiatua, the wry humour of the nurse, all adding flavour to the mix and making this an engrossing and memorable but also very entertaining production.


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