LETTERS FROM THE FRONT
21/04/2015 - 25/04/2015
Letters from the Front brings ANZAC letters alive
Improv troupe Best on Tap is bringing a special show to BATS for ANZAC Day.
Inspired by centenary commemorations, improv troupe Best on Tap is producing a show based on real-life letters sent to and from New Zealand soldiers in the First World War.
The letters and diaries are all the genuine article, printed from the archives, and the cast have not read them beforehand. Like the audience, the improvisers will be hearing these letters for the first time, and will be inspired to create scenes based on their contents. From the trenches in France to leave in London; training in Egypt, under the gun in Gallipoli and back in the homestead in New Zealand – this is history coming to life.
It’s bound to be an emotional experience.
“I was doing some research pretty early on,” says Wiremu Tuhiwai, one of the players. “I Googled ‘ww1 tuhiwai’ and the top find was ‘Wiremu Tuhiwai’, one of the Maori Pioneer Battalion. He died in France in 1917. I read that and I thought, this is getting super real. I hope I do him proud.”
And what about the women?
“Women weren’t just sitting at home knitting socks and worrying,” says Nicola Pauling. “There were women’s temperance movements that rallied hard against the war. And there were women who rolled up their sleeves and got to work while the men were away. They were nurses at the front, and they were ingenious fundraisers back home. Those women’s stories aren’t often told, and I’m looking forward to having some of them come to life on stage during the show.”
Letters from the Front on from 21 to 25 April at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace. The show will begin at 7pm, and will last approximately 50 minutes.
Tickets are $18 or $14 unwaged and can be booked on the BATS website.
Best on Tap would like to thank the Alexander Turnbull Library for their support of the show and for allowing us to replicate and improvise from the letters and diaries they curate.
LETTERS FROM THE FRONT
Dates: 21-25 April 2015
Venue: BATS Theatre, Kent Terrace
More Info: http://bats.co.nz/shows/letters-from-the-front/
Theatre , Improv ,
Strangely safe and benign
Review by John Smythe 22nd Apr 2015
Amid the welter of ways war stories are being brought to the fore amid WWI centenary commemorations, this improv format raises a number of questions.
Given hundreds of letters and diary entries are potential source material for a performance work that seeks to capture the essence of how it was for those on the frontline, and their loved ones, the first question is where do we start and how do we end?
Fair enough, then, to go for ‘random selection’: audience members trawl through photocopies in the foyer and choose what to drop in a box; on stage two Archivist characters pluck a page at a time from the box, and read out snippets. These are the ‘ask fors’ and ‘offers’ which provoke re-enactments by five more improvisers, suitably attired as soldiers or nurses.
The format is inspired by Return to Sender, which some of the same actors – as Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT) – played with last year. In that case the audience brought in the ‘snail-mail’ letters that ended up in the Dead Letter office and provoked the improvs.
In both cases the growing relationship between the letter readers – here the 21st century Archivists, winningly played this night by Nicola Pauling and Matt Hutton – runs parallel to the WWI scenarios. But given no ‘ask fors’ from the audience, there is no proof this part is not predetermined. Will all Archivist couples during the season beak the three cardinal rules around food, drink and dating? How do we know it’s improvised?
There also seem to be some ‘set pieces’ within the war scenarios, notably the Christmas Day 1914 truce, when opposing soldiers met in No Man’s Land and played football. Welcome and important as it is – although it could be a lot more poignant – it nevertheless comes out of nowhere that the audience is privy to.
Clearly the Best on Tap team playing soldiers and nurses for this opening show – Barry McSkimmin, Geoff Simmons, Kate Wilson, Mary Little and Wiremu Tuhiwai – have thoroughly researched the subject (their personal notes in the programme attest to that) so the slightest hint of something from a letter is able to park off a scene that authentically represents the war experience.
This time there is no actual trench warfare – and to attempt that could well be to trivialise it. We see the aftermath of the horrors in various ways, which are salutary. And some scenes represent departing for war, being on leave and returning home.
All the male characters this time are somehow benign and compassionate; there is no hint of how war can bring out the worst in a man (as well as the best). Likewise the women are exemplary members of their profession, except for that one tumble in the sandbags while off duty …
There is one brief attempt to refer back to a previous character but mostly we get snippets of different lives, so nothing accumulates within the war stories. This leaves the Archivist arc to give dramatic structure, and while their nice little love story makes for a good contrast with the other stories, it seems odd that it should take dramatic precedence.
Sebastian Morgan-Lynch adds greatly to the moods with his cello, culmination in a moving rendition of ‘The Last Post’, to accompany Binyon’s words – “They shall not grow old …” etc – which presumably will end every performance.
More often than not with improv, the concept is the peg on which to hang bravura displays of spontaneous creativity and the more the jeopardy there is the better. With Letters From the Front, improv serves the greater purpose of capturing the experience of the so-called ‘Great War’, which is admirable. Yet there is little danger. This first outing is strangely safe both in content and style.
The question that remains, then, is whether a format built around voyeurism and designed for fun may be productively used to replicate the profound experiences of war and address the issues inherent in our sending troops and support services to that dreadful, wasteful debacle. Which is the means and which the end? You will have to go yourselves to answer that.
In post-show chat an acquaintance and I both discovered we were recalling Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What A Lovely War which powerfully satirises the ‘Great War’ to brilliant effect. Perhaps now is not the right time for such a trenchant piss-take but let’s hope someone revives it before the centenary commemorations are completed.
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