Recently, I saw John Psathas' 'No Man's Land' a very powerful reflection on the far reaching implications of WWI, which reached virtually every nation and deeply infiltrated the soul and culture of a hugely diverse cross section of humanity. It was a global take on the Great War. 'Brass Poppies', by comparrison, is also deeply personal but it has a very small agenda. It is a more simple tale of a few affected by much. The story follows the Wellington Battalion at Chunuk Bair while simultaneously showing Wellington women at the Home Front, back home in Aro Valley. Librettist Vincent O'Sullivan delights in namechecking long forgotten places of interest like Mitcheltown, once a thriving, independent community or walking up Brooklyn hill for the view. A feat seldom undertaken by anyone - except students who'd missed the last bus.
Composer Ross Harris wanted his audience to leave with a deep human experience, so his snapping score is all about delivering emotional snapshots, something he achieves effectively throughout.
O'Sullivan intended to portray the impact of war, "one by one by one", which he does by revealing vignets of individual characters and the effects on each. Their doubts, fears and elations, boredom and sorrow. He shies away form the 'glory' cult of the fallen, so prominent in the RSA rhetoric and allows each character to fully question their role and situations. .
"What we are trying to convey musically and dramatically is that war is always about one person at a time. The real centre of war is an individual, or two people; husband and wife."
Brass Poppies focuses on four Wellington couples, depicting the men leaving for Gallipoli and engaging in battle, and the women waiting back in Aro St.
The writers were careful to avoid sentimentality and flag waving. O'Sullivan was clear about this in recent interviews: "There's nothing to be sentimental about. These people aren't coming back."
The Turks don not get much voice in this production, however represented only by one figure, and one instrument (the dumbek, also known as the goblet drum). Andrew Glover plays the part of the ever present spectre, the elusive enemy, hovering around in the early ecstatic recruitment days, as a an early warning - and later as a reminder. A sort of 'I told you so'.
Musically, the show sits mainly in the category of 'singing speach'. There are no arias or bacharoles to hang your hat on, as such. Which is slightly sad, in a sense because whilst the story is rememerable the music, that there of, is simply a mechanism of which to deliver the text audibly. Nevetheless this 70-minute, one-act opera is pretty punchy, without overbloated and protracted scales reconfigurations. Also, importantly, is the deft use of white Pakeha 'Nil Ziland' colloquialism, al be them completely mangled in their artistic delivery. That was a point of contention at tims when perfectly ordinary sentences got smashed up, into single words and expression, forced apart, beyond the single comma-breath like war torn children. However, that said, it's still cleverly close in interval to the tonality of the everyday cobber. And that goes for the orchestra, too, who are on stage for the whole show, in their khakis. Their writing is witty, light, and ever so slightly 'clunky' - reminiscent of any amateur Edwardian band of the day.
O'Sullivan, a long time local champion, clearly shows that this is very much a Wellington story. Jonathan Alver's set fits well into the warehouse space.
Long projection screen strips where images can be portrayed of battle scenes flowers and, of course home: Aro St. On stage, the cast who include James Egglestone, Sarah Court, Robert Tucker, Anna Leese, Jonathan Eyers, Madison Nonoa, Wade Kernot, Mary Newman-Pound and Andrew Glover Are all convincing. Their characters are quite nuanced given the limited spectrum they're working in, which all adds more depth to this thoroughly classy production.