Te Papa: Soundings, Wellington

14/03/2012 - 17/03/2012

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012

Production Details

“The horrors of war and the joyfulness of life are bound up together in this magnificent show.” The Scotsman

Private Peaceful, a riveting adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s award-winning book, comes to the Festival following sell-out seasons onLondon’sWest End.

Scamp Theatre’s solo show tells the story of Private ‘Tommo’ Peaceful, branded a coward by his country and condemned to death by firing squad. As time marches towards dawn, we learn of Tommo’s adventures, tragedies, the loves of his young life and the battles and injustices of war that now find him confined to a desolate cell.

Children’s Laureate and multi-award winning author Michael Morpurgo’s books have been translated into more than 26 languages. His titles include War Horse and Kensuke’s Kingdom. Morpurgo was inspired to write Private Peaceful following a trip to a war cemetery outsideYpres. He was shocked to discover how many young soldiers were court-martialled and shot for cowardice during the First World War.

Inventive and deeply moving, Private Peaceful is, above all, a story of hope. Bedfordshire-based Scamp Theatre was established in 2003 and specialises in literary adaptations. Scamp’s Private Peaceful has had two highly successful UK tours, with the Sunday Express calling it an “infinitely touching, intensely acted account of a young First World War soldier’s final day”.

Private Peaceful
Soundings Theatre, Te Papa
14 to 17 March
Tickets $48 available from Ticketek.

Private Peaceful also appears in Art on the Move in
Lower Hutt on 10 March and
Greytown on 12 March.
GA adult tickets $36 and GA child tickets $15 available from Ticketek.


Strong script and acting let down by design

Review by Michael Gilchrist 15th Mar 2012

Private Peaceful is a one-person play that was first performed in 2004 and has had a remarkable run of success since, with sell out tours of the UK and prizes for Alexander Campbell in the title role. It is wonderful to see him here giving his complete, precise and resonant rendering not only of Private Tommo Peaceful but of numerous other characters Tommo encounters in his brief journey though life.

The play is the story of one young man, from childhood in rural Englandto the Somme. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s book for young adults, it has a clarity of outline and vividness of theme that is a real strength on stage. No doubt these qualities are also present in Warhorse, another of Michael Morpurgo’s books first adapted for stage and now famously for screen by Steven Spielberg. Morpurgo is a phenomenally prolific and consistent writer, and many other of his books have found expression in other media.

The story has a strong overall structure that echoes the argument that an earlier British literary icon, Allan Sillitoe, explored in many different narratives: the first world war – and, in steadily more complex fashion, subsequent wars – was nothing but the logical extension of the class system in Europe and Britain. Slaughtering a generation of proletariat poised to seize control of the means of production was a more palatable option for the ruling class than handing over centuries’ worth of power and wealth.

So in Private Peaceful’s account, the authority figures who enforce the system steadily grow larger and more lethal, from landlord to schoolmaster to sergeant major. Against them are pitted bonds of kinship and kindness, the private, peaceful, sometimes idyllic, sometimes challenging world that Tommo, his brother Charlie and their childhood friend Molly attempt to build within a hostile social structure.

Early on, Tommo’s father gives his life to save his young son; ultimately Tommo’s elders embark on a hideous inversion of that sacrifice. It is not just people that die as a result, Morpurgo seems to say, but worlds that die in them.

The writing and adaptation are both exemplary in many ways. Economical, absolutely confident in their material and unafraid to delineate character by social as well as personal function.

But, for me this is a production of two, simultaneous halves. Strong script and great acting on one hand – disappointing sound, set and lighting design and overall direction on the other. These latter elements are limited to what can only be described as a sort of timid realism – a real no man’s land of the theatrical terrain.

At times the disjunction is glaring. While Tommo is describing the pounding of heavy artillery bombardments that last for two days – bombardments which take away all sense he has of himself and effectively pulverise what his betters would call his “moral fibre” – we the audience hear the vaguely reassuring patter of small arms fire in the distance turned up one or two notches on the amp. At the same time the lighting alters somewhat on the all purpose painted backdrop that signifies everything from the English countryside to the wastes of Ypres.

Being literal is not the point. Metaphors are real onstage and finding the right inner equivalents to an external reality is so much of what a good stage production is about. It’s not just the actor’s job.

The risk this production runs is of keeping us outside Peaceful’s private world at the same time as we are invited in. One side undermines the other. It almost says “that whole business, it’s all over, it’s not happening here and now.” That is a problem, dare I say it, at an ideological level. But it comes home to roost at a quite practical level too.

Since that required synthesis of elements is never more in evidence than at the very start and very end of a show, Private Peaceful has a much weaker conclusion than it deserves.  


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Politicians, generals should see this play

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Mar 2012

War and Shakespeare are two themes running through this year’s theatrical offerings at the International Arts Festival. They conjoined in Henry V, which also came to mind during Private Peaceful, a compelling solo play set in the First World War, the war to end all wars, in which a youngDevonshire lad is to be shot for cowardice.

Tommo Peaceful could well be Michael Williams in Shakespeare’s play except Tommo never gets the chance to talk to his commanders, only to his brutal sergeant-major; the court martial was over in an hour.

The play starts with Tommo lying on his bed in his cell a few hours before his execution. With simplicity, innocence and a youthful exuberance befitting his background he goes through the major events of his short life: his father’s death, his love for his older brother, his schooldays, his attraction to Molly who marries his brother, and his joining the army and the events in an attack across no man’s land that led to his court martial.

It’s a stark, simply and winningly told story of one young man’s short life, and it is not without humour: the plummy voiced pilot of a bi-plane who lands to ask for directions, and Tommo’s attempts at school to attract Molly.

It is all held together by Alexander Campbell’s marvellous ability to make us care for Tommo and also see all the people that cross his path whether they are two old ladies accusing him of being a coward because he hasn’t joined up (he’s 15), or, for barely fifty seconds, a scared but compassionate German soldier.

Alexander Campbell is supported by some superior lighting and an exquisite sound design that suggests not only the rapid passing of time (a theme running throughout the eighty minute play) but also the war itself but without overdoing deafening bombardments. The roughly painted board depicting no man’s land against a dark and cloudy sky is the only weakness.

However, I wonder what effect Private Peaceful would have had if it had been performed at the smaller and more intimate Downstage. I imagine we would be angrily demanding that all politicians and generals should be forced to see it. 


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