Centrepoint, Palmerston North

14/03/2014 - 12/04/2014

Production Details

It’s a well-worn cliché that writers are frequently asked where their ideas spring from. In the case of The War Artist, Carl Nixon’s brand new play, which makes its world premiere on 15 March at Centrepoint Theatre, it was a case of… well, art inspiring art.

The play is based on a painting – Burial Party at Bellevue near Solesme – by George Edmund Butler, New Zealand’s first official war artist. Playwright Carl Nixon attended an exhibition of work by official war artists at the Canterbury museum. Particularly impressed with the paintings of WWII artist Peter McIntyre, Nixon went online in search of further inspiration, where he came across the artwork of World War One artist George Edmund Butler. It was when he saw Burial Party that he knew he had found a piece he could base a play around. The play is a fictional imagining of the events leading up to the scene depicted in the real painting by George Edmund Butler. 

“It’s about how the New Zealand Army for the first time commissioned an artist to paint and depict the war. This was George Butler. I saw his work and was very impressed,” says Nixon. 

“It’s not as naturalistic and free flowing as some of the later war artists but very evocative and moving. I found a painting of New Zealand soldiers who were digging a mass grave and burying some of their comrades who had been killed. So I’ve written a play showing how that scene came to be painted”. 

Nixon’s fascination with the curious position that official war artists found themselves in – sent into battle as observers, and forced to choose between painting “pretty” sanitised scenes to send home to justify the war effort, or to depict the cruel, often horrifying reality of war – is explored in The War Artist.  

“How amazing that an artist sat and sketched men digging a mass grave to bury their New Zealand comrades – and so far from home. What is the point of such a piece of art, I wondered? Can it possibly help or even have a place in the face of four years of mechanised slaughter? Who were the men digging the grave and how did they feel; numb, dazed, angry, nothing at all?”  

Bringing Nixon’s words to the stage for the world premiere are a couple of actors brand new to the Centrepoint stage: Christchurch-based actor Tom Trevella and Simon Leary (winner of the 2011 Chapman Tripp for Most Promising Male Newcomer), who are joined by Owen Black (last seen onstage at Centrepoint in The Raft).  

Steven Ray will be directing the play. Steven has previously directed The Raft, Doubt and The Mystery of Irma Vep at Centrepoint, as well as playing Don Quixote in The Man of La Mancha.

George Edmund Butler’s painting Burial Party at Bellevue near Solesme can be viewed online at Archives New Zealand National Collection of War Art here: 

The War Artist
Performances runWednesdays 6:30pm; Thursday – Saturday 8pm; Sundays 5pm
Please note there is no Sunday performance on Sunday 16 March.
Special Performances:
$20 Tuesday: Tuesday 18 March, 6:30pm
. All tickets $20. Bookings for this performance only open on Monday 17 March at 9am through the box office at 280 Church Street or by phone 354 5740. Tickets are allocated on a first in first served basis and we regret we cannot accept email or answer-phone bookings for this performance. Limit 4 tickets per booking.  

$38 Adults, $30 Seniors, $30 Under 30s, $28 Community Service Card Holders, $18 Students, $68 Dinner & Show.

Private Mitchell:  Simon Leary
Captain Butler:  Tom Trevella
Sergeant Price:  Owen Black 

Director:  Steven Ray
Set Design:  Brian King
Lighting Design:  Nathan McKendry 
Costume Design:  Amy Macaskill 

Theatre ,

Compelling fitting tribute

Review by Richard Mays 20th Mar 2014

Centrepoint Theatre fired its first 40th anniversary year salvo with the premiere of Carl Nixon’s The War Artist.  

Written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, the production begins with a sonic assault – the sound of an artillery barrage reverberating through the theatre, before the lights come up on Brian King’s extraordinary raised and raked set.  

Dominating its sloped duck-boarded surface is a tree-trunk composed of steel rods. Its overhanging branches fashioned out of barbed wire, reach up and across the theatre ceiling like strands of a web. At the back, on a steel mesh behind a wall of sandbags, luminescent crosses glow. 

The play-through piece is loosely based on Burial Party at Bellevue near Solesmes, a scene painted by official war artist Captain George Butler, appointed in the final months of World War I to record the conflict on canvas for posterity. 

Played by Tom Trevella, Butler arrives offstage in an ambulance that is ferrying four corpses. He is accompanied by a stroppy Private, Bob Mitchell (Simon Leary) and the taciturn Sergeant Fenton Price (Owen Black). The sergeant has taken some time and trouble selecting this particular burial site, twenty miles behind the front lines. 

Butler is an honorary officer, a newbie, and out of his depth with these men who have suffered through the long hard bloody campaign, seeing action at Gallipoli and Passchendaele. Turns out though, in civvie street, the sergeant was an art teacher. 

Bob is a West Coast miner and introduces the captain to two-up, winning £6 off him – the equivalent of around $430 in today’s money. Given that enlisted men were on about two shillings a day (24 pennies, a tenth of a pound, or $7.20. In 1919 a penny purchased the equivalent of about 30 cents today), the private has scored bloody well. The captain should be considerably put out.

During the play, the two soldiers actually dig a grave. It’s fascinating to watch them shovel spoil from the hole positioned top and centre of the rake.

However, only three of the bodies the captain helped lug from the ambulance end up in the grave.

While Butler is off-stage retching and regaining his composure, the other two discover that one of corpses is German, and dump it over the wall. It seems strange that on his return, the captain doesn’t notice or comment on the fact that the burial party is suddenly one body short.

Reflections on life, death, luck, religion, art and morality lace the dialogue, with Trevella’s Butler mirroring the respectful dignity of a Christian Edwardian gentleman, and even using a semblance of a period sounding accent.

Leary’s forthright portrayal on the other hand, seems quite modern in comparison. It would have been interesting to see the character presented in a more subtle, subversive, laid-back and laconic way.  

In the troubled pivot role, Black delivers a thoughtful, nicely layered portrayal. 

Despite its distracting anomalies (the bodies are a bit artificial, and I’m not sure about the tread on their boots), and a small lull near the halfway point, The War Artist is a compelling piece, and could be developed to be more so.  

Nonetheless, its intention to temper the horrors of war with humanity and humour pays fitting tribute to the men who fought, bled, suffered and died on those far-off battlefields so long ago. 


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Surprising depths

Review by John C Ross 17th Mar 2014

Appointed an official war artist for the New Zealand Division in the Great War of 1914-18, how should one depict the warfare happening, the men taking part, the devastated landscapes? To glorify, in some way? Or to register the routine slaughter, the bleakness, the ruination, as one witnessed the evidence of them?

George Butler took up this role in France round about September 1918, when the Allies were advancing, yet still had months of killing and dying ahead of them. Previously a painter of romantic landscapes, he had spent some time in New Zealand before returning to England. A cache of his war paintings is in the National War Memorial building in Wellington, rarely seen. Nixon’s play takes its inspiration from one of them, of a few nameless Kiwi soldiers burying a few of their comrades, near Solesmes.  

One sees first a platform of separated boards, an uneven low wall upstage made of sandbags, odd strands of barbed wire, including some above our heads, and at stage right a near-vertical array of wire that we’ll be told is an oak tree. Two ‘grim digs’ enter, in their shirt-sleeves, a sergeant and a private, with Sergeant Price taking his time to choose a spot for what he wants, not desolate but to him beautiful. It turns out to be a place to dig a grave.

After a fair bit of chat, they fetch spades and a pick and start digging. Butler himself arrives, in a neat captain’s uniform, seeking something to sketch. When the sergeant is absent on an errand, Private Mitchell enlists him to help carry in four corpses wrapped in blankets. Eventually the burial takes place, and they leave. To say more would give too much away. 

Upon this simple scenario, Carl Nixon has constructed a fine and very moving play, which in Steven Ray’s production gets everything right. The dialogue feels pitch-perfect. The big situations are hit superbly. The three characters turn out to have surprising depths. Owen Black plays Sergeant Price, Simon Leary Private Mitchell, and Tom Trevella George Butler. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.  

Brian King designed the set, Amy Macaskill the costumes, and Nathan McKendry the lighting.

Carl Nixon is an accomplished playwright, but this play has higher stature than any others of his I’ve encountered. As several speakers made clear, before the first performance, it’s very fitting that this should be performed in the centenary of the start of the First World War. 


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