Dave Armstrong's controversial Gallipoli play premieres

Wellington playwright Dave Armstrong lost two relatives in WW1, while his grandfathers were both injured in battle.
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Wellington playwright Dave Armstrong lost two relatives in WW1, while his grandfathers were both injured in battle.

Wellington playwright and writer Dave Armstrong has spent much of his recent career writing about Gallipoli, and his new play, Anzac Eve, is a critical view which attempts to blow out many of the war's myths.

Given the patriotism that surrounds our most significant wartime battle, it's a brave stand for the award-winning playwright, who wonders how his two grandfathers, who were left with incurable wounds after fighting in World War I, might react.

"What would they think of a grandchild saying, 'Let's get over Gallipoli. It was a disaster and it was overrated?' That would possibly make them turn in their graves.

Maia (played by Ruby Hansen), and characters Lizzie (Trae Te Wiki), Ben (Barnaby Olson), and Phil (Hayden Frost) in ...
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Maia (played by Ruby Hansen), and characters Lizzie (Trae Te Wiki), Ben (Barnaby Olson), and Phil (Hayden Frost) in Anzac Eve.

"I wanted to have an alternative view of Gallipoli. It's time that we woke up a bit," he reflects.

READ MORE:
* Dave Armstrong: Theatre Review, Central
* The Questionnaire: Dave Armstrong
* Te Papa grips with its war show

Since 2013, Gallipoli has been all-consuming for Armstrong, and he has penned thousands of words about it. In partnership with Weta and Richard Taylor, Armstrong was contracted to write the museum text for Te Papa's blockbuster war exhibition, while he also worked on the Gallipoli section of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage's Nga Tapuwae app. Along the way, the writer of previous plays such as Niu Sila, The Motor Camp and Le Sud began questioning the myths that have arisen, especially as he listened to what others said about it - historians, officials and others.

Dave Armstrong was a writer on the Te Papa blockbuster, Gallipoli, The Scale of Our War, exhibition at Te Papa.
Ross Giblin

Dave Armstrong was a writer on the Te Papa blockbuster, Gallipoli, The Scale of Our War, exhibition at Te Papa.

Commissioned by WW100 to write Anzac Eve, the self-described pacifist penned the play over a long weekend in late 2014. It was an antidote to his museum work. The ideas flowed, and the 56-year-old didn't need to do much research as he had absorbed so much.

"It's trying to bust a lot of myths about Gallipoli. The thing is that it was a disaster and there were a lot of incompetences, but myths have emerged, like the British sat back and drank gin and tonic and didn't do anything. In reality, they lost more people than we did."

"There are some uncomfortable truths to it. You can go stale on WWI if you keep going back to the past, and I wanted a contemporary story about it."

One of the questions that Armstrong wanted to pose was: Have we really learnt from Gallipoli or are we still making the same mistakes 100 years later? 

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While he doesn't set out to answer his own questions, the story is shown through the eyes of four young Antipodean travellers on their big OE. Two twenty-somethings, Phil and Ben (Hayden Frost and Barnaby Olson) from Dunedin meet two young Australian girls on the eve of the Gallipoli commemorations - conservative Maia (Ruby Hansen) from a military family, who is in Gallipoli to see the military sites, and her friend, a "Mozzie" (Australian-born Maori), Lizzie (Trae Te Wiki).

Entertaining too, as it touches on themes of war, Anzac relations, racism, and human relations, he says: "I didn't want accents and khaki uniforms. It's a waste of time going back into history if we can't learn from it. My basic feeling is that we haven't learned from WWI. Whatever we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, whatever noble initiatives we have about Isis, we're kidding ourselves. Part of the play was born out of the helplessness that New Zealanders and Australians are still dying on foreign soil today."

"I have nothing but sympathy for the families of the soldiers who have been killed, but at the same time, I don't want the silly buggers to go. I'd suggest that soldiers have to stop 'just doing their job', and our politicians have to question, `Are we sending people to our deaths?' We have to be very, very careful about getting involved in wars that aren't our deal.

"I couldn't write about WW1 without writing about that. You can't bring them back."

But Armstrong is not anti-military. Before he ventured into writing, his first career was as a trumpet player, and he has enormous respect for the New Zealand Army Band after conducting its performance as part of his first play about the Battle of Passchendaele, King and Country, which premiered more than a decade ago. He has also played the trumpet with the New Zealand Air Force Band.

"I'm a fan of the military when they go to places like East Timor and bring goodwill but they shouldn't go to Afghanistan."

In Anzac Eve, Ben is a left-wing history student who is critical of any war. Most reminding the playwright and TV writer of himself at that age, Armstrong says: "I was 20 when the Springbok tour was on. I'd go to a party and meet a really nice girl and she was pro-tour and she would leave the party in tears."

"I've probably mellowed now. My philosophy is that you can disagree with people and talk about them, rather than being at war. A lot of my plays are like that now."

His family tree is littered with relatives who fought in WW1, of whom two were killed, although none went to Gallipoli. His maternal grandfather couldn't shovel hay because of a war wound, and his paternal grandfather walked with a limp.

"Both my parents said, `The war buggered them up'. That's what I'm saying in the play. The war buggers up lives, whether it's Afghanistan or Gallipoli.

"My paternal grandparents hadn't met my mother's parents until their wedding in 1950. My grandfather said, `I don't know much about John Armstrong, but I notice he wears an RSA badge and that's good enough for me'. They were fellow veterans. That sort of thing makes me warm inside and sick at the same time."

One of the actresses, Trae Te Wiki, has a biological Maori father living in Perth. Te Wiki grew up on a marae in Hawera with her mother, but many of her Maori relatives call Australia their home.

"Mozzies" intrigue Armstrong, and the 24-year-old nods. "I have a lot of family in Aussie, baby cousins growing up there, and my half-siblings. I hear all the time from them that Australia is so much better for them economically."

Anzac Eve is on a seven-week tour, starting at Bats Theatre this week until Saturday March 25. tourmakers.co.nz.

 - Stuff

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