Review: The Glass Soldier ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 10, 2007

Review: The Glass Soldier

The Glass Soldier by Hannie Rayson. Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. August 8. Until September 8. Bookings: 1300 136 166.

The mechanised carnage of the First World War has generated a rich tradition of plays, from the Expressionist drama of early 20th century Germany to powerful contemporary works like Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme or Howard Barker’s The Love of a Good Man. Hannie Rayson’s The Glass Soldier is, at best, a modest addition to the line-up.

Originally conceived as a movie, The Glass Soldier bears the stamp of a film script transferred, with lots of bells and whistles, to the stage. It’s essentially a biopic that is loosely based on the real-life story of Nelson Ferguson, who was almost blind for half a century after he was gassed on the Somme in the First World War.

Despite his handicap, Ferguson taught art for many years and then helped to run a stained glass business in Ballarat. His eyesight was restored in 1968 with corneal transplants – too late, unfortunately, for him to see his wife Madeleine, who died shortly before the operation.

Rayson has heavily fictionalised the original story to create a schematic demonstration of the life-long effects of the trauma of war. Related over three hours in a parade of scenes which give us a none-too-subtle lesson in Australian history, it’s rather like Theatre in Education for grown-ups: long on exposition and short on any real drama.

The narrative moves from the First World War to Ferguson’s old age, with whistle-stops at Depression-era Australia, World War 2 and the Vietnam War. Each period is signalled by the appropriate contemporary songs. The trauma of war is signalled by flashbacks in which Australian infantrymen, accompanied by loud explosions, fling themselves across the stage.

There’s one moment of startling theatre – a monologue delivered by Steve Bisley that graphically describes the effects of gas – but, for the most part, the presiding muse is cliché. For the first half hour or so, it reminded me of those creaky war movies that used to play on day-time television.

However, no one can say that director Simon Phillips has treated the text badly. The production is beautifully designed: Dale Ferguson’s abstract set is based around a number of pillars, creatively using scrims to continually redefine the space, and it is lushly and inventively lit by Nick Schlieper.

The hard-working cast, all playing multiple characters, does its best with the material. Steve Bisley and Robert Menzies in particular generate some moments of feeling, but in the end even they can’t transcend the limitations of the script.

This review is published unchanged from the review printed today's Australian newspaper. Online link if and when available.


On Stage And Walls said...

The first hour was like "Journey's End" meets "Oh! What A Lovely War"!
What did you make of that strange man/woman character who sang the music hall song and then appeared later in male clothes. Was he/she/it supposed to be some kind of Vesta Tilley male impersonator or was the cast stretched to the limit at that point.

Alison Croggon said...

I really don't know, Bardassa! One imagines, all the same, frantic costume changes backstage...

Anonymous said...

You join the hallowed ranks in this play, Alison. Len Radic was immortalised as Leonardo Radish (mild mannered reporter for the Mildura Trumpet) in Dimboola ; "Wise Guy" Guy Rundle was rebirthed as Helen Makin (a trenchant if sexually frustrated critic) in Daniel Lillford's A Critical Stranger in 1996. And now you... as the evil Croggon in Hannie's play. :)

At least she got the spelling right. LOL!

Alison Croggon said...

Evil sadist Alan Croggon, reporting for duty. My dear, how on earth am I supposed to respond to that? - (though I can't say I'm exactly thrilled about joining the hallowed ranks of Leonard Radic...)

Well, I've long known that I'm not on Hannie Rayson's Christmas card list. And for those who think that it might be a strange coincidence: there are exactly three Croggons listed in the White Pages for the whole of Australia... and two of them are my parents...

In any case, I wrote the review I was obliged (and paid) to write. But I ain't wasting my free time writing anything more. She can at least feel comforted that I think rather too well of my art to have any characters called Henry Rayson turning up in a novel or poem.

On Stage And Walls said...

Seriously, Croggin in "The Glass Soldier" isn't a a reference to la Croggin?

Apparently Wagner originaly intended to call the reactionary, 'wannabe' poet in "The Mastersingers of Nurenberg" Hanns Lick (as a pun on the anti-Wagner music critic Eduard Hanslick)

Alison Croggon said...

The difference between Wagner and Rayson is that Wagner changed his mind. :)

On Stage And Walls said...

Is it really a dig at you though?

I would have introduced you as a critic who pronounced Nelson's work as rubbish in the early scenes.
I'm going back to see it next week because I thought opening night was a little messy.

Alison Croggon said...

My review of Hotel Sorrento for the Bulletin was one of the primary reasons I was banned from Playbox. It was a petty little stoush that at the time got a ton of publicity. That review was also included in that MUP anthology Creme de la Phlegm. (The Gerard Windsor quote from the SMH in my sidebar is in fact from a review of that book, referring to that particular review).

If Hannie wants to take potshots at me, she has every motive.

As for the rest - well, maybe it's just a bizarre and strange coincidence, the rarity of my surname notwithstanding. But certainly the people who rushed up to me on opening night thought otherwise. And I think that, myself, I'd just rather not enter into that kind of personal fight, however much other people enjoy it. It's not why I'm an artist, and it's not why I write theatre criticism.

Nicholas Pickard said...

The mind boggles at such school yard antics by Rayson. I mean, really!

How old is this woman? Hasn't she had a pretty good run since Hotel Sorrento? Isn't she now a pretty successful Australian playwright? (A relatively rare thing nowadays.)

Methinks she may have a bit too much time on her hands. How extraordinary.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed "Glass Soldier" overall, though there was a lot that I thought could have been tightened up. I too wasn't sure what the deal was with the androgynous character and where she fitted in. There seemed to be a number of superfluous characters, and I agree, there didn't need to be so much exposition.

That said, I thought the relationships, particularly between Nelson and Madeleine, were beautifully portrayed. One of the friends I saw it with, and I, were both in tears because it reminded us of her parents and my (now deceased) grandparents. For that reason, there was a lot about it that I found beautiful and moving. I'm also a bit of a sucker for historical drama. While there were certainly bits I thought could have been cut, overall I found myself really drawn in to the extent that I didn't notice the length.

Anonymous said...

I saw The Glass Soldier on Saturday and even after the mess that was Two Brothers I was shocked at how cliché, and well, bad it was. The first half was like Rayson had gone through a list of characters and set ups found in so many period films: snooty English people make snide remarks about Orstralia whilst getting hot under the collar for handsome Aussie solider - check! early courtship scene between lovebirds played out on piano stool – check! terribly sweet yet foppish brother of refined yet feisty English rose just waiting to be sacrificed in war – check! soldier in trenches lights cigarette incurring violent wrath of his general – check! And on and on it goes…Then there was the incessant over-the-top yelling: ‘Maddieeeee!!!” (Stellaaaa!!!), the obligatory “Nooooo”’s over limp bodies, ‘Take it off! Take it offfff!’. Oh, shut up. My friend and I had to stop ourselves from giggling at these moments and were holding our breath for “Stay with me/Don’t you die on me damn you!/Not on my watch!”. The horrors of war are not any laughing matter but this production was so cheesy I couldn’t watch it without crackers. Yet again Hannie has taken a serious, complex issue and made it as simple and lightweight as fairy floss. This would perhaps be more acceptable if it was at least entertaining. Promise me you won’t die? That’s too difficult a promise (not to mention too big a cliché) to ask. How about: promise me you’ll wait until the next script is fully developed before staging yet another disappointing piece of theatre.

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