Anzac Eve looks at the Gallipoli 'myth' through the eyes of millennials

by Francesca Horsley / 20 March, 2017

A chance meeting of Australians and Kiwis at Anzac Cove in Anzac Eve. Photo/Amber Griffin

When writer Dave Armstrong started suffering WWI centenary fatigue, it inspired his new play to dismantle the Gallipoli legend.

If Dave Armstrong sees another play about a loyal boy heading off to World War I, he is going to reach for a revolver. He has had enough – including his own 2004 work, King and Country. “I am over it,” he says emphatically.

So, when it was suggested he write another play on WWI, he didn’t want to see khaki uniforms and soldiers saying, “Mother, I have been called to the front.” Then he thought, “Hold on, I have this idea about young people who now go to Gallipoli. They go for a piss-up and a hook-up, wearing their great-great grandfather’s or great-great uncle’s medals.”

The result is Anzac Eve – a deconstruction of the complex web of heroic myth, military history and national identity viewed through the lens of four young millennials who grapple with the weight and legacy of a war waged more than 100 years ago. It is premiering in Wellington this month, before touring nationally.

Armstrong’s past plays have examined our national psyche, looking at our ­idiosyncrasies through the viewpoints of his characters – although he rarely presents his own as the correct one.

In his new work, he puts together a conservative young Australian woman and her best friend, a Maori Australian who has hardly ever been to New Zealand, and two geeky Dunedin guys – one a left-wing historian, the other obsessed with IT and facts. Meeting by chance on the lawn at Anzac Cove, they share a bottle of vodka and passionately assert their disparate views on war, ­Gallipoli and the Anzac bond.

Playwright Dave Armstrong: presenting an alternative view.

Armstrong adopted a commemorative tone with King and Country, and was moved by the audience’s response to Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition, to which he also contributed.

However, he felt compelled to present an alternative view with this story, believing it is now time for New Zealanders to rethink Anzac Day and its power to capture the ­imagination of both countries.

“Are we guilty of buying into a few myths? Are we guilty of overcooking the Anzac spirit? Who lost more soldiers?” France, Britain, Ireland and India had huge numbers of ­casualties – not forgetting the Turks.

He says the play doesn’t always come out on one side or the other. “It asks questions, really: what is true and what is not, and what don’t we focus on? Why do we celebrate Gallipoli so much when, in terms of WWI, it was a tiny campaign? There are a lot of ­historical questions and I really like the challenge of seeing it through the eyes of twentysomethings. Is it really true that it was the birthplace of our nation? Is the special Anzac bond a load of bullshit? In the play, I let them argue it out.”

A baby boomer, Armstrong says as with many of his generation, he regarded Anzac as a dirty word. His grandfather was wounded in the arm and lung during the war and this had a lifelong debilitating effect on him and his family. But now there is a resurgence among young people who take commemoration seriously.

“One of the characters, Maia, whose brother is serving in Afghanistan, says, ‘How dare you criticise war, how dare you criticise the military, how dare you laugh at people that wear their grandfather’s medals; to us, it is very serious.’ There are a lot of young people who think that. You could argue they are far enough distanced from the experience that, for them, it’s a piece of history rather than the real experience.”

In Anzac Eve, the conversation extends to Australian and New Zealand perspectives on immigration and terrorism. Armstrong says despite our camaraderie when meeting up overseas, we are different countries, different people. “Here, we talk about ­terrorism almost intellectually; they talk about Martin Square, Bali – they have had big terrorist attacks. We talk intellectually about refugees; they have boat people – we don’t have boat people turning up. I am not justifying the views, they are just different, and I found in writing it was quite easy to find arguments on both sides.”

New Zealand’s willingness to engage in other nations’ conflicts is also scrutinised. His character Ben proposes that Iraq and ­Afghanistan are similar to Gallipoli. “Haven’t we learnt from our mistakes?”

Armstrong says, “I don’t want to portray Gallipoli as a totally sinful campaign, but at the same time I think we need a bit of objectivity.

“I don’t want to go to relatives of those who fought overseas and say, ‘Oh, it is all a myth’, but I am quite happy for my characters to do it. That is why I love the theatre; it is quite a safe place to consider these things.”

Anzac Eve opens at Bats Theatre, Wellington, on March 21, then tours nationally until May 6.

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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