‘Over the Top’ by Amanda Jackson
Over The Top, is an ANZAC play that presents a theatrical insight into the lives of nine young people who enlisted in WW1 in 1915 and explores the effect on their families left behind. The stories of the six boy soldiers, Patrick, Jack, Edgar, Harry, Pura and Hoani and three girls Dora, Ruth and Madeleine enlisting as nurses, although fictional, are based on the stories of real families residing in Napier in 1915 – 1918. First produced by The Drama Workshop for the centenary of Gallipoli in 2015, this re-write has been commissioned by HaBYT to tour Hawkes Bay, Christchurch, Brisbane, Auckland and Melbourne over 2017/2018. The cast includes 13 young people from a number of diverse secondary school environments across Hawke’s Bay working alongside two adult actors. The play uses sign language, spoken word, song, physical theatre and imagery to bring the stories to life.
Writer: Amanda Jackson
Director: Peter Cottrell (Artistic Director of HaBYT).
Movement Director: Champa Maciel
Producer: Juliet Cottrell (Managing Director – HABYT)
Te Reo Consultant and Tutor: Whaia Tania Robin
Costumes: Angela Elliott
30 JUNE 2017, PLAYHOUSE THEATRE, HASTINGS
Tailing the Gallipoli centennial commemorations, I must admit, I felt weary at the thought of Hawke’s Bay’s youth theatre troupe, HaBYT, staging true-life World War One stories and the risk of a glorifying ANZAC legend. But the guiding hands of director Peter Cottrell, dramaturge Amanda Jackson and choreographer Champa Marciel are too astute to offer up clichéd, packaged sentiments, and I was treated to a theatrical engagement with the past that was powerful and surprisingly resonant.
Over the Top offers a multifaceted perspective on the young men and women who enlisted for a war on the other side of the world 100 years ago, exploring the nuance and implication of individual decision within the close familial, social weave, and framed by a wider historical context. Nine local interwoven lives and multiple voices (both representative of the different war experiences and biographically specific) collectively tell the story, conveyed with evocative, breath-taking artistry; simple, minimalist stage design; and sustained by compelling, focused performances.
In their yearning for adventure, for meaningful work, for the “big, brave world” beyond the safe, familiar shore, the need to go their own way, the infectious pull of their peer group, the young ‘heroes’ of this play have an identifiable immediacy. There’s a sobering poignancy in the sense that all that stands between them and the same-aged actors who embody them is a century’s remove. Likewise, in the various responses of the parental figures – from pride and pressure, to foreboding, worry, fierce opposition, to plain annoyance (“we need you for the lambing”) – there’s a human complexity and dynamic that is universal, timeless, transcending History and the play’s own carefully anchored period.
Amusing quips and animated exchange between characters generates a sense of their ‘aliveness’ and proximity, gradually giving way to more stylistic, tableau-like interactions as the realities of war sink in, and ultimately a more abstracted distance, silence. Folded into the script are cultural references, from totemic figures of the time (Banjo Patterson, Rupert Brooke) to oft-heard NZ-familiar refrains (“home for Christmas”) and recognisable descriptors (“a living hell”), to, finally, the commemorative act: the Last Post, which morphs from an authentically enacted memorial, into the national ritual by which we collectively remember, gently returning the audience in the process to our historically-conscious present.
While these narrative elements accomplish a satisfying arc, what gives the play its vital force, is the incorporation of physical theatre, stunningly choreographed movement, and the effective use of music, sound, song – most profoundly towards the end in the clear, pure singing of a Māori waiata as it melds into English folk song, underscoring a united grief.
I was particularly impressed with the seamless, almost magical transitions between scenes. In one, a screen-printed sheet held taut as a propaganda-backdrop for enlistment is folded up by the actor holding it as if bringing in washing, as the play smoothly shifts into a busy domestic scene. In another, a sheet with a black and white photo of soldiers – their backs – marching, creates the set for intersecting narratives in the first letters home, to then be draped over living bodies, creating, in the next scene, a craggy landscape, trenches; an actor stretched out across, his eyes open, the sound of artillery fire. It’s incredibly effective and all we need to conjure, visually, the horror.
‘Over the Top’ is a superbly crafted and impeccably delivered theatre piece, and I very much look forward to what HaBYT, under the directorship of Peter Cottrell and the Drama Workshop production team, come up with next.
Bridie Freeman, The Hook
“As the play progressed I kept hoping there would be things my critical self could latch onto to prevent the emotional overload I was experiencing. Unfortunately there was quite simply a plethora of stunning performances. I do have a strong emotional response to anything related to war that highlights the waste of young lives. The last time my reaction was so intense was when I went to the war cemetery at Monte Cassino in Italy. Row upon row of white crosses right near where the loss of young lives occurred day after day, is quite overwhelming. This production is outstanding in so many ways. The writing of it is superb. Amanda is one clever cookie!! I think you know me well enough to know I am not easily impressed with written material or productions. This is an amazing piece of theatre on both counts.This is written work with high impact that your students did great justice too. Please pass on to them all my ‘enjoyment’ of their dress rehearsal.
Jacquie Hills,Theatre Hawkes Bay
As brief as it was on your flying visit(!), it was just wonderful to have you, Peter, Champa and the HaBYT students here to perform Amanda’s powerful piece ‘Over the Top’ in the Gloucester Room, followed by an insightful Q&A. I really enjoyed hearing the heartfelt responses from some of the senior audience members invited from the local RSA, as well as the school children in the room (and their teachers). It was very interesting to hear the perspectives of the HaBYT students in tackling the play, the personal stories of young HB characters having so much more relevance to them – oh the power of theatre, I so love it!!
Andrea Brigden, Artistic and Business Development, Isaac Theatre, Christchurch
I just wanted to thank you for coming to The Gap and congratulate you (and all of the group) on another fantastic performance! My students absolutely LOVED IT! My year 11 students are just about to start working on a class performance and they are already full of ideas based off things they saw in your performance.
I also have to commend you all on your behaviour – so well behaved and polite and friendly.
Looking forward to hear about your next project!
Melissa Handley, The Gap High School, Brisbane
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