Over the Top

30 June 2017, Playhouse Theatre, Hastings

Tailing the Gallipoli centennial commemorations, I must admit, I felt weary at the thought of Hawke’s Bay’s youth theatre troupe, HaBYT, staging true-life World War One stories and the risk of a glorifying ANZAC legend.  But the guiding hands of director Peter Cottrell, dramaturge Amanda Jackson and choreographer Champa Marciel are too astute to offer up clichéd, packaged sentiments, and I was treated to a theatrical engagement with the past that was powerful and surprisingly resonant.

Over the Top offers a multifaceted perspective on the young men and women who enlisted for a war on the other side of the world 100 years ago, exploring the nuance and implication of individual decision within the close familial, social weave, and framed by a wider historical context. Nine local interwoven lives and multiple voices (both representative of the different war experiences and biographically specific) collectively tell the story, conveyed with evocative, breath-taking artistry; simple, minimalist stage design; and sustained by compelling, focused performances.

In their yearning for adventure, for meaningful work, for the “big, brave world” beyond the safe, familiar shore, the need to go their own way, the infectious pull of their peer group, the young ‘heroes’ of this play have an identifiable immediacy. There’s a sobering poignancy in the sense that all that stands between them and the same-aged actors who embody them is a century’s remove. Likewise, in the various responses of the parental figures – from pride and pressure, to foreboding, worry, fierce opposition, to plain annoyance (“we need you for the lambing”) – there’s a human complexity and dynamic that is universal, timeless, transcending History and the play’s own carefully anchored period.

Amusing quips and animated exchange between characters generates a sense of their ‘aliveness’ and proximity, gradually giving way to more stylistic, tableau-like interactions as the realities of war sink in, and ultimately a more abstracted distance, silence. Folded into the script are cultural references, from totemic figures of the time (Banjo Patterson, Rupert Brooke) to oft-heard NZ-familiar refrains (“home for Christmas”) and recognisable descriptors (“a living hell”), to, finally, the commemorative act: the Last Post, which morphs from an authentically enacted memorial, into the national ritual by which we collectively remember, gently returning the audience in the process to our historically-conscious present.

While these narrative elements accomplish a satisfying arc, what gives the play its vital force, is the incorporation of physical theatre, stunningly choreographed movement, and the effective use of music, sound, song – most profoundly towards the end in the clear, pure singing of a Māori waiata as it melds into English folk song, underscoring a united grief.

I was particularly impressed with the seamless, almost magical transitions between scenes. In one, a screen-printed sheet held taut as a propaganda-backdrop for enlistment is folded up by the actor holding it as if bringing in washing, as the play smoothly shifts into a busy domestic scene. In another, a sheet with a black and white photo of soldiers – their backs – marching, creates the set for intersecting narratives in the first letters home, to then be draped over living bodies, creating, in the next scene, a craggy landscape, trenches; an actor stretched out across, his eyes open, the sound of artillery fire. It’s incredibly effective and all we need to conjure, visually, the horror.

Over the Top is a superbly crafted and impeccably delivered theatre piece, and I very much look forward to what HaBYT, under the directorship of Peter Cottrell and the Drama Workshop production team, come up with next.

Over the Top is currently on tour, being played to sold-out shows in Christchurch and Brisbane.

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