Months toiling in tropical mud with 70kgs backpacks, marching up steep inclines in intermittent downpour, mosquitoes buzzing about. Watching mates die of dysentery beside the track as you push forward. Guiding ‘angels’, the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ native force, who tended to the wounded and supported Aussie troops, all place us in a part of hell unique to our national story- the Papua New Guinean campaign and our forces’ efforts to capture Port Moresby to halt the Japanese invasion in six short months from July 1942. All this is evocatively recreated in an eviscerating account of one man’s experience, as lay militia flown in to do the work of trained soldiers, in South Australian Peter Maddern’s vibrant retelling, Kokoda- The Play.
Written and performed for the 75th Anniversary this July in Adelaide, this play honours the work of those who fought under terrible conditions to protect our borders. A solid hour, vigorously performed by veteran descendant Todd Gray, grabs our attention with a gripping account of events on-the-ground, its critique of political manoeuvrings, the failure of leaders, the bloody cost of battle, and of the psychological scars borne by ordinary men sent into a tyranny of mud and disease up on the steep Owen Stanley ranges. It’s the stuff of heroes, as toughly fought and survived as Gallipoli, yet often overlooked by the international cache this other battle supplies. But had our men not protected us from Japanese invasion, Australian lives could have taken a very different direction. A Japanese force at 10,000 men, our small number still managed to force their retreat under gruelling conditions and inept leadership.
Theatrically bold, passionately acted, with historical veracity as well as pathos and poetry, this is a work that both educates and entertains. Based on the stories of many servicemen, it takes us into one man’s tale, Collingwood’s Private Morris Powell’s, and with its gritty realism, allows the viewer to deeply come to grips with WWII as experienced on the Track. It’s captivating live action translation, with chopper whoops and bullet sound effects, that take you right in with our forces. Gray’s authentic larrikinism and rugged physicality brings ordinary bloke Powell, to life, and we watch him travel from brazen naive machismo to deep knowing through his emotional journey on this …triumph for the Generals…[where] we were just the rabbits.
A simple set lays a bare spot much like any on the Track, as ‘location’ for our character’s travails, the physical and emotional. Situated in mountainous jungle terrain, with few airfield landing sites, Maddern brings the battle phases to life for us in his lively script in the Australian vernacular – from initial arrival in the tropics, to the series of fights over small patches of territory that brought civilian militia face-to-face with Japanese fighters. Tight scenes place us in Buna and Gona, Gowa and Isurava, close to the beaches and river crossings Australians bravely contested. The combined military command of ‘top brass’ Generals Blamey and star US forces’ MacArthur, were shown a sham, lacking working knowledge of the terrain and how to traffic arms and supplies in, to the detriment of the men on the ground. Gray’s robust and impassioned delivery is supported by simple backdrops and realistic khaki costuming, later stained in blood. Josh Williams’ phenomenal sound score brings battle sounds to Powell as he awaits, seemingly endlessly, armed reinforcements. It’s all bombs, bullets, cries and derring do from the Aussies.
What holds us most is the journey arc of this character, hanging on through fatigue, malaria, hunger, his yearning for home, disillusionment, and loss. It was one hell of a way to become a man. A touching moment is the recital of the poem for the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels which all returned Kokoda fighters always valorize; they wouldn’t have survived without them.
This work is an important piece that should travel far. Its quality writing, action and performance will capture the hearts of all who love being Australian. It’s about our history, our place in world politics, and the mark Aussies made through participation in global war, and our identity. Deeply affecting, thanks to great research, clever writing, and heartfelt performance by Gray, I left better aware of the human story of Kokoda.
See it if you like battle stories, true stories, national stories- and true grit.
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.
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Click here for What’s On for the full Melbourne Fringe 2017 program, 14 September – 1 October.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were guests of Melbourne Fringe.
Image credit: Peter Maddern.