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Gallipoli at the Sydney Theatre

Author: Darryn King
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Director: Nigel Jamieson
Photo: Brett Boardman

Director Nigel Jamieson is renowned for his large-scale productions – particularly his role in the 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony – and it is this talent for bombast and extravaganza that he brings to the Sydney Theatre Company production of Gallipoli. You wouldn’t trust less capable hands than Jamieson’s to give the Gallipoli story this ambitious treatment: the production features a 40-strong ensemble and incorporates aerial performance, poetry, tap-dancing, original archive footage, choirs that spontaneously burst into song, and even a touch of burlesque…

This is no Rock Eisteddfod though. There is never danger of the spectacle overpowering the emotional core of the production. In fact, combining these disparate elements of performance turns out to be an appropriate way to convey the enormity of the tragedy. This format also gives Jamieson the freedom to draw upon a vast array of interconnected stories, each incredibly affecting and illuminating some other dark aspect of the Gallipoli story: General Ian Hamilton sleeping while his men were massacred, dying young soldiers calling out for their mothers, swarms of flies gorging themselves on corpses, returned soldiers who pass the horror down to their children…

The production is educational as well as gripping. Particularly interesting is the story of Australian war correspondent Charles Bean, who learns just how unpopular the truth is when reporting on an outbreak of venereal disease in the ranks. After the disaster at Gallipoli, he is left little option but to paint an unrealistic picture of the Australian troops’ “imperishable glory” – because the alternative is being howled out of existence by those back home.

We know from the start how the Gallipoli story ends. We are simply forced to watch as young Australians are seduced into the Army by song, spectacular rhetoric and the promise of travel and adventure, others bullied by pastel images of a little blonde girl asking, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War-” And of course we know that the terrified troops are marching into the jaws of death, even when they themselves don’t. The whole production is infused with this queasy sense of dramatic irony, and all we can do is wait for the inevitable, chilling crack of rifle fire.

As it draws to a close, Gallipoli is fairly blatant in drawing parallels to more recent events in Australian history, but I for one forgive it this. With all these glib statements of Gallipoli being part of the national psyche, it still seems that Australia, as a whole, is yet to fully grasp the abysmal horror of war – and Gallipoli reminds us just how important it is that we do.

WHAT: Gallipoli at the Sydney Theatre
WHEN: Now – Saturday 23 August