Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Meg McNena: Mud and Blood.
Directed by Alice Bishop, St. Kilda RSL, Friday 5 April 2019.
The play will have a season in Ballarat on 17 May 2019.
This is a moving biographical play about a lesser-known war hero – Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott. It walks a very edgy line between war hero hagiography and tragic victim of war, and because it situates the battles on the frontline of people’s hearts, women’s hearts in particular, it is often very moving indeed.
Because its action is located on two battlegrounds, the warzones of Turkey, Egypt, and the Western Front on the one hand, and the kitchen-gardens of rural Victoria (Ballarat) and in the hearts of women folk of the victims on the other, it is structurally very clever, interweaving the two stories, both Big Stories, deftly. Thousands of men are represented, perfectly adequately, by four soldiers, sometimes playing one role, sometimes many (apart from Darren Mort, they were the multifaceted James Bolton, Matt Connell and David Kambouris who brought the pitiable young soldiers to vivid life and variously played the British brass, paperboys, aides). The staging is non-naturalistic and relatively simple, for which I applaud Alice Bishop, the director.
The play resonated for me. In my family, three of whose men went to two wars (the professional soldier started as a child at the Boer war and was seriously wounded on the third day at Gallipoli, another was interned in Germany and shot by Gestapo days short of the end of WWII, and the third ended up in a lunatic asylum in Goulburn – all victims of war for very different reasons), my grandmother (wife/mother to them all) could only point to the British flag and intone what was on the poster: ‘This is your flag – fight for it, die for it’. There was no question in her mind that the cost might have been too high. So, it’s great that this play explores what it was like for the women and gives them intelligent and resisting voices. As the grandchild/child of those men, I saw the cost and queried it from an early age.
This play appropriately pays homage to the very real achievements of Pompey Elliott (impeccably played by Darren Mort): his ability to mould ragamuffins into soldiers and bind them to him in mutual respect and love, and his role in fighting some of the most unwinnable battles on the Somme – Polygon Wood, Amiens, Villers-Bretonneux, and Péronne. His blunt, reality-based resistance to unintelligent British command won him few friends in command, either in the Australian forces or the British army, and he was passed over for honours and rank. He presided over the greatest loss of men ever in Australian war history, according to his biographer Ross McMullin, and paid a huge personal cost, eventually suiciding (the play wisely goes around this event – it’s tragic enough without it). It’s a story that deserves to be better known outside military circles, by the likes of you and me, because it’s a story of a man who was truly selfless, truly caring of his men whom he thought of unsentimentally as sons, and brave, and also because he demonstrates that extraordinary cost of war, even amongst its survivors. And also, most importantly, that he spoke to power, and sometimes was heard. He was a complex war hero – far from the sociopaths we are sometimes asked to admire.
The play offers us lots of contrasts, especially among the women left behind, and the ways in which their lives and thinking about war evolved in the light of experience. Pompey’s wife and kids, played sensitively by Lauren Bailey, come to life on the stage (even though the kids are not represented as characters) via their letters to one another, strangely uncensored. They made a truth-telling pact, and we are the richer for its existence. One of the marks of Pompey’s deep emotional intelligence is his hunger for details about his growing kids, their hair, their games, their growing up. Ross McMullin, after the show, read some of his war stories written for a 4-year old – Pompey knew how not to destroy their innocence. There is even a letter, used in the play, in which they make love to one another. Quite a feat! It was easy to see Kate’s increasing well-based concern for the mental health of her husband. The other woman whose role was more complex was Ada, mother of John (based on a real soldier in Pompey’s care) and played by Anthea Davis with a mother’s ferocity, who is forced by the death of her son to question more and more insistently, and to join Vida Goldstein and the Women’s Peace Movement. Ada gradually shifts from a position of support for the war effort, to an active resistance to sending men to the front, hostility to Pompey and finally to a slow and consoling recognition of his care for her son. This moving trajectory is aided by some understated poetic symbolism of a cherished apple tree.
This is a play by an Irish-born woman who is a proud member of the Irish Australian community and former poetry editor of Tinteán. It will make waves in military circles, which I think are changing in their view about their duty of care, but perhaps glacially, and it is a play that in its complexity and broad vision deserves to be seen by many.