Careful understatement brilliantly tells tale of WWI
What: The War Artist, by Carl Nixon
Where: Centrepoint Theatre
When: March 15-April 12
Reviewed by: Tina White
"I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier . . . " softly sings actor Simon Leary as Private Mitchell, in the final moments of The War Artist, Centrepoint Theatre's first production of this, its 40th anniversary year.
Singing, we soon learn, is Private Mitchell's way of making a point or covering up awkward feelings; that song is a meaningful coda to all that has gone before in this extraordinarily moving Carl Nixon play.
Based on a 1918 painting of New Zealand war artist, George Edmund Butler, the plot weaves a story around the artist's involvement with two soldiers who must bury four Kiwi soldiers killed in battle.
Sergeant Price (Owen Black) has insisted on bringing these bodies far from front lines, to a chosen spot on the border of Belgium and France, near St Omer. Assisted by Private Mitchell, he starts to dig the grave near a shady oak tree, watched by the artist and honorary captain George Butler (Tom Trevella.)
This task occupies the whole play, as the three men talk about their war experiences, their backgrounds and occupations back in New Zealand, their personal attitudes to life and the jokes and anecdotes that help block out constant horror.
Mitchell the former miner is the rough diamond of the crew; Price the former teacher with his own reasons for choosing the burial spot; and Butler, the newly-appointed civilian not yet certain what his sketches should record.
Director Steven Ray has made careful understatement work beautifully here; the three actors build up their relationships layer by layer, dropping vital information like raindrops into a pool until the final revelation and understanding.
Lighting, sound, costume and set reinforce the sepia atmosphere of 1918.
In Brian King's set design, barbed wire is not only a familiar war metaphor, but weaves itself into trees, and even as sunset approaches, a hint of stars; and the actors actually do dig a grave onstage.
At Saturday night's opening of The War Artist, the show's link to this year's World War I centenary was marked by Centrepoint artistic director Jeff Kingsford-Brown. He introduced short pre-performance talks by special guests Chris Finlayson, Minister for Culture and Heritage, and the present New Zealand Defence Force artist, Matt Gauldie.