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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Theatre |
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King and Country

By Dave Armstrong Directed by Conrad Newport
Downstage 13 – 22 July

As a country, our collective memories begin in the First World War, The War to End All Wars, The Great War (are you beginning to get my drift?) and usually at Gallipoli. This was the first time that Kiwis were able to prove themselves on an international scale, the first time that we were really able to prove our mettle. King and Country is a look at this turbulent time in New Zealand history through the eyes of six ordinary Kiwis from all walks of life. It is a fun, moving and especially honest piece of theatre.

All of the actors play their respective snippet of early twentieth century New Zealander to perfection. Their performances are heartfelt, frank and sincere with no character more important than any other. Nick Dunbar plays Lieutenant Terence Gilbert, an upstanding gentleman from Canterbury and a Boer War veteran who is finds himself needing to play his part in the war against the Hun. Of all the characters, his was possibly the hardest to play. Watching the show from the beginning of the twenty first century his character seems so backward – he is thoroughly patronizing of the Maori participating in the war but also appreciative of them. He is also extremely troubled by the overt callousness of the top brass who are cornered into a position of having to enforce unjust and unrealistic rules. He is contrasted by Private Albert George Burnett, played by Craig Geenty, whose almost simpleton character attests to the naivety, youth and innocence of these young men and women.

The portrayal of Maori in King and Country is interesting. On the one hand you have Private Ratanui played by the debonair Jamie McCaskill who is almost everything the Crown would be looking for in a soldier. On the other hand you have the cheeky, stereotyped (think a young Billy T. James) Private Muru who is a drunkard and a carefree joker, constantly dicing with death. In a way both of these characters live up to the negative expectations of their Pakeha peers but they also defy them in interesting ways. The reason they are participating in the war is a prime example of this – they want to prove to the Pakeha that they are just as good (if not better) than him. It is intresting to see the demarcation between Maori and Pakeha soldiers – Maori wear shorts instead of trousers – and what purpose this really served.

There are two truly beautiful partnerships portrayed in King and Country, the first between Red Cross Nurse Rose McKenzie played tenderly by Dena Kennedy and Lance Corporal Fred McKenzie played by Jason Hood, a war correspondent. Brother and sister, they are from an upper class Kiwi family with strong ties to Britain, and are drawn into the war effort out of loyalty to king and country. The second is between Rose and Private Ratanui, they love each other but the cultural divide and their own cultural expectations are too much for love to conquer. It is a beautiful dynamic to watch because the audience can sense the fact that the situation will never be resolved happily.

Armstrong’s script is beautiful and real. It is both side-splittingly funny and darkly morbid at the same time. The play ends with each actor returning to the stage as themselves to deliver a short monologue about ancestors that they have lost to war. It brings the content of the play back to reality and makes it extremely relevant. It brings home the fact that a war fought by our county almost a hundred years ago still has a real effect – both on us as individuals and on our national psyche.

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About the Author ()

HAILING FROM the upper-middle- class hell of Havelock North, Jules is in the final semester of a bachelor’s degree in Trenchermanship (majoring in Gourmandry), is a self-professed Anarcho-Dandy and resides in the Aro Valley. He likes to spend his days pursuing whimsical follies of every sort and his evenings gallivanting through the bars and restaurants of Wellington in search of the perfect wine list. He has unfailingly dedicated his life to the excessive consumption of food and drink (despite having no discernable way of paying for it), and expects to die of simultaneous heart and kidney failure at thirty-nine. His only hope is that very soon people will start to pay him for his opinions (of which he is endowed with aplenty). Jules has a penchant for vintage Oloroso.

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