Hannie Rayson's new play, The Glass Soldier, is a bloated, disjointed effort that will do little to buttress her reputation. Over three hours long, Rayson's script meanders between historical epic and contemporary melodrama with little focus. As a result, it largely wastes the talents of its hugely credentialed cast.
The Glass Soldier is the story of Nelson Ferguson, a promising young artist wounded in 1918 on the Western Front of World War I, in the heavy fighting that engulfed Australian forces near Villers-Bretonneux. The play is essentially an epic love story that tells the story of Nelson (Jay Bowen and Robert Menzies), his English wife Maddy (Asher Keddie and Kerry Armstrong), and his best mate Wolfie (Ben Guerens and Steve Bisley). Beginning in the trenches on the Somme, the play returns to Victoria and follows Nelson and his family and friends through three generations as he battles his war wounds, both physical and mental, and carves out a career as an art teacher.
Novelistic in ambition, Rayson's script is confused about its intentions. In some ways an elegy to the devastating emotional scars left by World War I, it is also a romantic melodrama with the nebulous concept of war as its great villain. Australian General Pompey Elliot appears early for a brief period, but the story of this fascinating man is ignored for the everyman character of Nelson.
Rayson's dialogue often jars. When Nelson takes his leave of Maddy before embarking for the Somme, she entreats him with a wooden “Promise me you won't die.” A speech about German poison gas attacks is a derivative shadow of the grim brutality of Wilfred Owen's poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. Nelson's painting is referred to by one of the characters in 1918 England as “modernist”, an anachronistic term for Australian visual art at the time (the Heide School would not be founded until the early 1930's).
The play improves noticeably after interval as rousing battle speeches are swapped for kitchen-sink drama, and the younger cast cedes centre stage for veterans Kerry Armstong (older Madeleine), Steve Bisley (older Wolfie) and Robert Menzies (older Nelson).
The superb Menzies gives everything in a powerful performance that proves again why he is one of the most admired male leads in the country, while Bisley shows the youngsters that experience and nous can make all the difference in a challenging part. Armstrong is, quite simply, wasted in a role which does little to show off her wonderful talent.
In contrast, some of the younger members of the cast struggle. While opening night nerves can affect anyone, there were unusual numbers of fluffed lines. Jay Bowen and Asher Keddie showed application and craft, but Ben Guerens, Sara Gleeson and Roderick Byrnes found the going difficult.
A special point needs to be made about The Glass Soldier's audio production. While technology can and should be used in the pursuit of better theatre, it's worth asking whether the whole cast needs to wear radio microphones. The Arts Centre Playhouse is, after all, hardly the worst acoustic environment a professional actor is likely to face. Nor does the crutch of a microphone give full scope to the vocal ability of an actor like Robert Menzies. And when a connection cuts out or another actor approaches too near, the whole audience is treated to mysterious clicks, rumbles and heavy breathing.
Having said that, The Glass Soldier is far from a write-off. Somewhere in the last third of the play, a tighter, better drama is waiting to be discovered. Indeed, after interval there are glimpses of what Bisley, Armstrong and Menzies might have achieved with better material. And Dale Ferguson's set is bold, innovative, even starkly beautiful. The show is handsomely lit by Nick Schlieper.
Ultimately, The Glass Soldier is a lesson for Simon Phillips and Hannie Rayson in mid-career hubris. Running past three hours and with a cast of twelve, this script would never have been produced at MTC if it were not for the profile of its author. Were punches pulled in rehearsal? Did time run short as deadlines loomed? The reviewer can never know these things. But clearly, at some stage, some hard decisions were ignored.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of
The Glass Soldier
by Hannie Rayson
Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Previews: from 4 August 2007
Dates: Wednesday 8 August 2007 - 8 September 2007
Times: Mon & Tue 6.30pm (6 & 7 Aug 8pm), Wed 1pm & 8pm (no mat 8 Aug), Thu & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm (4 Aug 2pm & 8pm)
Tickets: $16 - $72.10
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 or www.mtc.com.au