Theatre is often the art of telling an old tale in a new way and sometimes we think we know all the story has to tell us until someone like author Peter Rothstein puts it differently.
The opening of All Is Calm was a man telling a boy about the Christmas Truce, as it became to be known, which happened on Christmas eve and day, 1914, the time when people who should know were confidently predicting that the 5 months old World War One would be over. Wrong. It had almost 4 years to go. However, at the time it seemed to be adventurous and fun to join in and the Scottish traditional “Will ye go to Flanders”, the recruiting song “Come on and join” to the tune of Alexander’s Ragtime Band and the jaunty “Bonsoir old thing, cheerio, chin-chin, nah-poo, toodle-oo, good-bye-ee” had them marching off to battle with a smile on their lips.
That’s when we knew we were in for an evening of truly beautiful a cappella singing. This was the first time Musical Director, Trevor Anderson, had taken on theatre music direction and a cappella is his speciality, coaching many groups all over Australia encouraging bringing performance into music. Twelve young men were the soldiers, sometimes Brits, sometimes Germans, as if to emphasise that on this occasion they were one – just young men forced to do a hateful job, wondering why and longing for home, loved ones and normality. This was a group brought together by Promise Adelaide – most on the very threshold of their theatre careers – and what a beautiful sound they made. The audience was spellbound by the lovely solos then backed by the rest of the group in innovative and varied arrangements so that not for one moment did one miss instruments which so often mask the beauty of the voice. The singers were, Lachlan Blanch, Jack Conroy, Ben Francis, Deon Martin-Williams, Nick Munday, Cameron McKinnon, Jack Raft, Will Richards, Aaron Thomas, Jono Webb, Lachlan Williams and Aden Quinn. It was a joy and a credit to the singers, the Director and Musical Director, Paul Reichstein. Ben Francis, who is co-founder of Promise Adelaide, apart from delighting with his singing, was assistant musical director, co-producer and writer of the programme notes. Trish Francis was assistant director, the other producer, set designer and co- costume designer. Paul Francis was co-set constructor with Steve Reichstein. Stage manager Bob Weatherly was also in charge of the very good lighting and credit too goes to graphic designer, Nicholas Ely, sound/special effects, Craig Williams and stage hand India Goodhand. A few people doing a lot of work and doing it very well.
As awful reality set in, the songs changed to those such as “I want to go home,” the grim “The Old Barbed Wire”, the longing “Keep the homefires burning” and, mourning the senselessness of it all with “We’re here because we’re here.” Along with German songs like the familiar “O Tannenbaum” Christmas was remembered and all ended with “Auld Lang Syne”. Well, no, all ended with a photograph of never-ending gravestones and the only instrument we heard – playing the ever heart-churning Last Post. Who can hear it without a tightening of the throat and tears in the eyes. Between the songs, creator Peter Rothstein used an answer to a question he asked of himself, “If the characters were left to their own devices, how would they tell their story?” The men in the trenches didn’t have much but they left a priceless legacy in the letters they wrote home and which were quoted throughout. In the excellent programme, full of interesting information, the individuals whose letters and comments were used, are listed above the timeless three words, “Lest we forget.”
The real event happened in Ypres in Belgium when allied troops were facing off Germans in trenches with a narrow strip of no-man’s land bordered by barbed wire in between them. The truce was initiated by the Germans who on Christmas Eve were seen to be putting lanterns along the parapet of their trenches and were heard to sing “Stille Nacht”, Silent Night, in German. The British contingent joined in and when the Germans sang “Deutsche Uber Alles” they responded with “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Men of Harlech” and other heartening retaliation. It didn’t only happen in Ypres. Gerard DeGroot reports, that elsewhere along the line, it was reported to Captain Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers that Germans were standing on their parapet, unarmed and in full view. “Permission to shoot them, sir?” the sergeant asked. Stockwell, hearing the Saxons shout, “Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight today. We will send you some beer,” asked to speak to his German opposite number to whom he said that he was not allowed to fraternise. The German replied, “My orders are the same as yours, but could we not have a truce from shooting today? We don’t want to shoot, do you?” They agreed not to fight until the following morning giving them Christmas Day in peace. The question was asked – “If all the soldiers had refused to fight would the war have ended then?” 68 million men were mobilised and 9 million killed. We were asked to “Look up and swear by the green spring that you will never forget.”
The scenes where the men met outside the trenches, shared what they had, laughed, smoked, joked, drank and then played a game of soccer brought a lightness to it all and we sensed how it must have been to have that brief time of sanity. There were of course those in authority to whom such fraternisation was abhorrent and they prevailed on later Christmas days. One of those who wanted it forbidden was a corporal in the German army called Adolf Hitler. As Christmas followed Christmas with no sign of an end to the misery, with high command strongly prohibiting fraternisation, the troops becoming bitter as losses and suffering increased hugely and goodwill seeping away with the introduction of poison gas, this one day made its mark in history.
The absolute beginning and end were let-downs of an otherwise very, very good show. Young Cooper James filled his role with confidence as the young lad being told the tale but Malcolm Walton was unconvincing as grandad with a timeless tale to tell.
While the Festival Theatre Complex comes to the end and Her Majesty’s Theatre is about to begin their fearfully costly renovations, Adelaide theatre carries on its fine tradition of good shows, despite the scruffiness of such as the Goodwood Theatre. It was a packed house, testament to the good things that happen there.
Promise Adelaide presents
ALL IS CALM
The Christmas Truce of 1914
Director Paul Reichstein
Venue: The Goodwood Institute | 166 Goodwood Rd, Goodwood SA
Dates: 21 – 23 December 2017