Sunday, 12 August 2007

The Glass Soldier by Hannie Rayson, MTC, Aug 12, 2007

 The Glass Soldier 
by Hannie Rayson
by Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Aug 12 to Sept 8, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 12, 2007

Hannie Rayson tellingly represents the cycle of war and its physical and psychological toll on our men and their families in The Glass Soldier. 

The play, which is also to be a movie, spans the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam War and is based on the life of Nelson Ferguson, a Great War veteran. His brief battlefield diary and other research are the basis for the play.

War stories are often compelling but the span of one man’s life does not have a natural dramatic arc so the dramatic tension in this script ebbs and flows. The second half is the more successful and is deftly directed by Simon Phillips. The structure of the first half is episodic and a little unfocussed. It attempts to follow the experiences of numerous men, including Young Nelson (Jay Bowen), so its dramatic focus is initially difficult to isolate.

The style of the act one is perhaps better suited to screen. Its rapid shifts from the horrors of the trenches at the Somme to the salons of wartime London are sometimes awkward. The first half contains some overly sentimental speeches and didactic or expository dialogue. Sometimes research can get in the way of good drama.

The story of Ferguson and his mate, Wolfie Kessler, really takes off after the men return to Australia. We witness the trauma and social dislocation of the soldiers trying to reintegrate into their communities.

 Young Wolfie (Ben Geurens), a war hero, turns to grog to mask his pain and guilt about his less heroic wartime actions whilst Young Nelson struggles with the aftermath of the Germans’ mustard gas that damaged both his eyes and his lungs. It seems his career as an artist and his engagement to English girl, Madeleine (Asher Keddie, Kerry Armstrong) are doomed.

The second half changes to a more naturalistic, conventionally theatrical style. Robert Menzies as Older Nelson is commanding and sympathetic as he manages his family, his artistic career and the need to support his friend. Steve Bisley convincingly captures the belligerence, humour and charisma of Older Wolfie and Kerry Armstrong is gracious and dignified as Older Madeleine.

Bowen plays Young Nelson with charm and warmth and Geurens is a feisty Young Wolfie. Keddie’s Young Madeleine is elegant and composed. Sara Gleeson is delightful in various cameos.

Dale Ferguson’s contemporary design opens and shuts to create many locations and the stage is lit dramatically by Nick Schlieper.

by Kate Herbert

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