Maidment Theatre, Auckland

14/06/2014 - 05/07/2014

Production Details


Once on Chunuk Bair returns to the stage after 25 years  

Inspired by the extraordinary courage of those who gave their lives in New Zealand’s Gallipoli campaign, in June Auckland Theatre Company (ATC) revives Maurice Shadbolt’s iconic New Zealand production, Once on Chunuk Bair.

A theatrical highlight in ATC’s 2014 season, this thought-provoking tale of tragedy, heroism and heartbreak runs from June 12 to July 5 at Auckland’s Maidment Theatre.

Once on Chunuk Bair is June 12 to July 5 at Auckland’s Maidment Theatre once again directed by the lauded Ian Mune, who introduced the play to the New Zealand stage in 1982 and directed the last professional production in 1989.

Mune and co-director Cameron Rhodes lead a cast of some of New Zealand’s strongest male actors to tell the shocking and significant story of needless bloodshed.

They include Andrew Grainger (Chicago, The Heretic, Anne Boleyn), Wesley Dowdell (Outrageous Fortune), Steven Lovatt (Fallen Angels, Anne Boleyn, Angels in America), Jordan Mooney (Lord of the Flies, The Heretic), Kevin Keys (August: Osage County, The Almighty Johnsons, Nothing Trivial) and, in his first production for ATC, Sam Snedden (The Pride, Private Lives, The Pitchfork Disney).

The play is set in the hours between dawn and dusk on August 8 1915, the day the Wellington Battalion were fatefully tasked by British Generals to take the strategic peak of Chunuk Bair on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsular.

After fleeting success, the young men were struck with a massive counter-attack. Yet, with extraordinary courage, the stalwart Wellingtonians battled to hold off the enemy, firing their rifles and those of their fallen companions until the metal was too hot to hold.

As one of New Zealand’s most celebrated novelists, playwrights and history-writers, Shadbolt recreated the tragic episode of modern war: a battle that defined us as a nation. Of the 760 men tasked to take the summit, 711 became casualties. Tragically these men died in vain as the Gallipoli campaign was eventually abandoned by the Allies.

ATC artistic director Colin McColl says this moving account is one that must never be forgotten.

“Buried for a quarter of a century, what could be more appropriate than to see the return of the powerful Once on Chunuk Bair during this historic year. These young men headed off to war in good faith to fight for king and country, only to be used as cannon fodder by their British commanders. Once on Chunuk Bair shows the courage and endurance of our brave lads, the friendships and camaraderie they had for each other. It’s an event that has defined the Anzac spirit. This is a play that must be seen by anyone interested in the shaping of our culture,” McColl says

Seen as a masterpiece of remembrance, Once on Chunuk Bair was conceived by Shadbolt following an emotional visit to Turkey’s Anzac Cove and Chunuk Bair in 1977. He saw the battle as a defining moment in New Zealand history, when the country realised its identity was no longer defined by British imperialism.

Five years following his journey the play was finished and in 1982 Mune directed its first performance at the Mercury Theatre, Auckland. By 1991, the play was adapted into a feature film.

Maidment Theatre
June 12 to July 5
See: http://www.atc.co.nz/whats-on/2014/once-on-chunuk-bair 

Please note: This performance will include: Offensive language, loud explosions, Gunfire, Strobe, Haze & Smoke

Once was Enough

Review by Matt Baker 17th Jun 2014

The fact that the temporary capture of Chunuk Bair was the only success for the Allies in the Gallipoli Campaign at the expense of hundreds of men’s lives is a perfect example of the futility of war. It is a landmark in New Zealand history and requires little reminding: lest we forget, indeed. The opportunity, then, to see life breathed into the men who fought and died is an exciting, if not, macabre, prospect, and one that could result in a truly cathartic experience for Kiwi audiences.

The show starts off promisingly, with Wesley Dowdell and Andrew Grainger establishing an honest and humorous dynamic between two men with little in common other than the situation in which they find themselves. This introductory relationship, however, is then attempted with other pairings and clumsily interjected throughout the play. These unmotivated conversations stick out of the script glaringly, as opposed to the humanity of the play being peppered evenly throughout and eventually culminating into something greater than the sum of its parts. [More]


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NZ’s battle tragedy comes alive

Review by Janet McAllister 16th Jun 2014

It’s not often live drama includes more than a handful of actors – even rarer to see a whole cast on stage for long. 

But in this superb Auckland Theatre Company production, twelve angry men fill the stage with presence and charisma, increasing the under-fire excitement of a battlefield tragedy.

Common mythology has it that New Zealand’s nationhood came of age in Gallipoli, and Maurice Shadbolt’s wonderful, knowledgeable, surprisingly subtle 1982 homage to those who fought on Chunuk Bair examines why. His “Fern Leaves” spend far more vitriol on the British officers “feeding” them to the Turks than they spend on the supposed enemy. [More]


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Notions of glamour extinguished while those who gave their lives pointlessly are ennobled

Review by Robbie Nicol 15th Jun 2014

It is almost a hundred years ago that Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, along with the rest of the Wellington Battalion, took the peak of Chunuk Bair. Of those 760 men, all but 70 were dead by the time they were joined by reinforcements. Officially, this slaughter was the only success for the Allies in their Gallipolli Campaign. 

Once on Chunuk Bair comes to the Maidment Theatre twenty-five years after its last professional production. Co-directed by Cameron Rhodes and Ian Mune, the director of the show’s debut season in 1982, the Auckland Theatre Company has powerfully realised a story that has come to embody the New Zealand view of our English ‘brothers in arms’.

The play begins with a sound that is quintessentially Kiwi: the bleating of sheep and birdsong. Jason Smith’s sound design brings in the call to war, the proud singing of young men marching towards their deaths and then artillery shells, one after the other, explosion after explosion. The lights come up.

The characters dribble onto the stage. Each one separated from the others thanks to Tracey Collins’ characteristically impressive costume design. Every uniform serves the theatrical function of describing its character, but each seems to have developed its individuality simply by going to hell with the person who wears it.

The challenge with theatre is forcing in all of the messages you want to convey, while convincing the audience that nothing is being forced. One has to move the puppets and hide the strings. Just as Collins finds that balance between theatricality and naturalism in her costumes, so too is it present in much of the acting. 

Maurice Shadbolt’s only published play provides us with the familiar characters one has come to expect from a war story, and it is often the acting that keeps them from seeming like stock characters. Stephen Lovatt’s Colonel Connolly is world-weary, anti-authority and loyal to his men, but he steers his role away from stereotype with a performance that is totally convincing. 

The same can be said for Sam Snedden’s Lieutenant Harkness – an ex-Christ’s College first XI cricketer, with a clean uniform and a love for Queen and Empire. The work that these actors have put in physically, training like soldiers to the point they almost vomit, must be little effort compared to the work they have put in developing their portrayals of these characters.

Wesley Dowdell (of Outrageous Fortune fame) is in a familiar role as the slightly foolish Smiler, and Jordan Mooney’s Holy is performed with the control of an actor with experience beyond his years. At times, Tim Carlsen’s Scruffy pushes his childish vulnerability a little too hard, and Kevin Keys can sometimes deliver his lines as though they are catchphrases from a war movie. For the most part, however, it is impressive how much we come to care for each character in an ensemble this large, and it is crucial that we do care, as one begins to worry, like in some twisted horror film, about who will be next to die. 

Sean Lynch’s lighting design leads us from dawn to dusk gracefully and the set, piled high in front of us, is a gift to the actors. It is a carefully constructed mess of camouflage in which nothing is hidden. In so much chaos, the levels of the stage allow the entire audience to catch the slight smile from Colonel Connolly as Taungaroa Emile’s Otaki George talks of Te Rauparaha and the Ngati Toa fight against the Pakeha. 

The most powerful moments of the production come from the dialogue between Kevin Keys’ Sergeant Frank and Lovatt’s Connolly. Sergeant Frank is a pacifist who says he was not brave enough to not go to war. He is opposed to the imperialist mission, and he threatens to leave more than once. Connolly, the strong paternal figure of the play, wishes he could paint or write poetry. He is that rare thing, a romantic New Zealander, and despite his claims that they are fighting a battle for themselves and not for the British, we are made to feel that there is something false in his glorification of their battle. It feels like a last attempt at justification from a group of people who have been abandoned. 

Mune was quoted in the New Zealand Herald as saying, “For a modern audience, you have to keep the pressure up; they don’t like too much sitting around and talking about it all.” But those are the moments that are most gripping. The play can be too patriotic, sentimentalising New Zealand and painting the British as bad because they are British, but mostly it feels like a fitting way to remember the death of so many men, and the death of our love for the motherland.

It is always frightening to think that paying respect to the soldiers who so bravely went into battle will make war glamorous. If there is any battle that might extinguish any notion of glamour while still ennobling those who gave their lives, it is the pointless loss of the men at Chunuk Bair.


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