King and CountryReviewed by Ethan Tucker
King and Country
24 Feb - 18 Mar
Go forward, fearlessly
In August 1914 Europe descended into all-out warfare, and New Zealand stepped into the fray alongside the Mother Country. Many young New Zealanders were eager to prove themselves in battle and see the world at the same time. By 1918, the tiny country with a population of just over one million had sent over 103,000 men (including 2688 Maori troops) to serve overseas in World War I. Of that number, 16,700 were killed and over 40,000 were wounded. Few families were spared loss and grief.
Dave Armstrong’s home-grown play, King and Country, tells the fictional stories of six ordinary New Zealanders who enlisted and went away to war, and follows their growth from idealistic and eager youths signing up for service. Handsome Lance Corporal MacKenzie signs up as a war correspondent, while his sister Rose joins as a nurse to help the troops overseas. Private Burnett, a country larrikin from the Wairarapa, joins up for adventure. Lieutenant Gilbert, a stoic veteran of the Boer War, is initially dismayed to command unruly Maori troops like Private Ratanui from Hawkes Bay and Hokonui’s Private Muru.
As the play moves from initial training in New Zealand to the bloody crevasses of Gallipoli and the razor-wire of the Western Front, a series of fifteen musical interludes from the period are performed to good effect by the cast, supported by the 17-strong uniformed members of the New Zealand Army Band*. Ranging in sentiment from the gung-ho patriotism of ‘We Must All Fall In’, to the timeless song of farewell, ‘Now Is The Hour’, to the stirring beauty of ‘E Pari Ra’ and ‘Piko Nei Te Matenga’, the songs expertly conjure up the spirit of the age, and allow each cast member a moment in the spotlight.
While the theme of sacrifice builds throughout the play, there is also time for plenty of humour and enjoyment. The witty banter of the Maori Pioneers, imitating their stiffly-waxed officers or practicing their pidgin French on the mademoiselles of Armentieres, jollies the play along. Lieutenant Gilbert’s bland observations, such as his remark that the Army’s strategy to combat venereal disease in Cairo involved opening up a YMCA reading room, and Nurse Rose’s wistful reflection that ‘the men can be quite nice when they’re sick … but then they get better’ also get the audience laughing. Romance blossoms too, after Nurse Rose tends to Private Ratanui after he takes some shrapnel at Gallipoli.
The play expertly conveys the slide from wide-eyed enthusiasm to the grim determination of wartime, without ever becoming maudlin. As the New Zealanders are ordered to the Western Front, the true cost of war becomes clear, as men are sent to die in their hundreds in futile assaults on impenetrable German positions. Each letter home could be the last. None emerges unscathed, and those that return are changed forever by the experience, colouring the bonds of mateship with sacrifice.
Dave Armstrong wrote King and Country to illustrate the New Zealand tale of World War I in story and song, and his play is an accomplished work of popular theatre. Without exception, its cast and musicians do an admirable job in bringing an engaging story to life. King and Country deserves the widest possible audience of New Zealanders both young and old, because it captures so expertly the experience of the many thousands of their countrymen and women who served and gave their lives in the war that shaped so many aspects of modern New Zealand society.
* Note that in Masterton the performers will be members of the Masterton District Band, and in Paraparaumu the performers will be from the Trust Porirua City Brass.