24 April 2015

Anzac Day and Black Diggers

NGV, St Kilda Road

There are two performances of Black Diggers on Anzac Day. I hope that there isn't an empty seat in the house because these are stories that should be told on Anzac Day and need to become part of the greater Anzac story.

I saw it on Wednesday night. Walking back to cars, a friend and I stopped to look at the Anzac Day projections on the walls of the NGV. The size alone demands attention but it was pictures of graves and lists of names that made us watch. We talked about how neither of us have a (known) family connection to the First World War, or an ANZAC, and we talked about stories and who can or should tell them.

Then I remembered by great aunt. I can tell something of her story.

As a child in the 1970s and 80s, I didn't think twice about the old aunt who talked about "her boys", marched in the Anzac Day march and gave me a velvet uniform button that I kept because I thought it was pretty and have passed from jewellery box to jewellery box ever since. I remember we'd turn on the tv to watch her in the march because we might see her on telly, not because of why she was marching. I don't think anyone from our family went with her.

She never married or had children and was the definition of a grumpy and opinionated spinster aunt. She had an opinion about everything and everyone and was happy to share it loudly. She died slowly in her 90s and dementia stole her memories. I wish I'd listened more when I had the chance. I know there would have been many opinions in her memories that I didn't like, but I still wish I knew more.

She was a nurse, a lieutenant, in the Second World War. She was nearly 30 when she enlisted in 1941 and served in Egypt and Papua New Guinea. She would have seen things that she'd never have had the opportunity to see and things that no one should ever have to see. She would've had respect and freedom for the first time in her life and I suspect that there was sex and drinking and everything that was frowned upon and shocking when she returned to the straight jacket of life in conservative Adelaide.

No wonder she was always a bit angry.

Black Diggers
Queensland Theatre Company, Sydney Festival
22 April 2015
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 26 April

Black Diggers. Photo by Jamie Williams

The National Gallery of Victoria is next to Arts Centre Melbourne. At night, the gallery's long grey brick walls share an Anzac story in a series of projections. It's beautiful and huge and well worth spending some time watching. Until Sunday, there's another Anzac story being shared in the Arts Centre. Black Diggers is beautiful, human and affecting theatre that tells some of the Anzac stories that must never be lost in the grey.

The projections include paintings of the First World War, photos of the war, mass graves and stone and poppy memorials to the lost – memorials that are a short walk from the NGV. One of most powerful is a photo of Anzac Cove: a small bay with a nice beach that's flanked by cliffs that'd leave you prepared to swim out rather than climb. It tells an all encompassing story that's so important in Australia that it has a public holiday to remember it (and a brilliant biscuit).

NGV, St Kilda Road

Black Diggers tells some of the stories that are lost in the encompassing hugeness of the Anzac story.
Developed by the Queensland Theatre Company and supported by the Sydney Festival, it's on a too-short tour around the country.

In 1914, Australia's population was less than five million (not much more than Melbourne's 100 years later). During the war, 416, 809 men enlisted; 1300 of those men (400 from Melbourne) were Indigenous. Many had family who could remember a time before the European invasion, they weren't citizens and it was difficult to enlist when you weren't at least "substantially European". But they were also young men who couldn't resist the adventure of a lifetime and the promise of being paid.

Told by nine men, young and Elders, this story starts in the early 1900s and moves through enlistment  the war, their return and their legacy. The stories are based on real people and experiences but have been fictionalised to tell the bigger story and connect to a truth that's greater than the personal.

The bunker design (Stephen Curtis) has with an eternal flame or campfire burning in a tin barrel and black walls covered with unreadable white graffiti. As those who have gone before tried to make their mark and tell their story, the men in Black Diggers use white ash to paint names, dates and places.

Directed by Wesley Enoch and written by Tom Wright, the stories don't judge or preach; they just tell. They tell us the heartbreaking and shameful and the uplifting and hopeful. And by sharing them with us, these stories become more than the stories of those black Diggers, they become our stories.

There are two performances of Black Diggers on Anzac Day, this Saturday. I hope that there isn't an empty seat.

This was on  AussieTheatre.com .

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