Lest we forget

Jan Bolwell has turned her grandfather’s war experience into a play, Bill Massey’s Tourists. Photos: Supplied
Jan Bolwell has turned her grandfather’s war experience into a play, Bill Massey’s Tourists. Photos: Supplied
Playwright, choreographer and performer Jan Bolwell has turned her search for more information about her North Otago grandfather’s war service into a one-woman show. She tells Rebecca Fox about putting her family’s history on stage.

Like a lot of men of his generation, Arthur Gardiner did not talk about the war.

He died when his granddaughter, Jan Bolwell, was just 12 years old - before she developed a curiosity about his time at war.

So when the World War 1 commemorations began to be spoken about, Bolwell started to think again about her grandfather.

''I decided it was a good time to try and find out more about his life and war.''

Gardiner was a member of the Otago Mounted Rifles and trained in Egypt and England before going to France.

It was inevitable that the research would culminate in a play given Bolwell had already written two others about her family - one about her father's World War 2 experiences, Standing on my Hands, and a dramatisation of her grandmother's life, Here's Hilda.

''It's the end of a trilogy of plays. It seems fitting.''

Arthur Gardiner
Arthur Gardiner

The play is titled Bill Massey's Tourists because this is what the Kiwi soldiers called themselves, referring to then prime minister Bill Massey.

While she had the research, Bolwell needed to find an angle from which to tell the story.

She came up with the idea of telling the story from the perspective of her 16-year-old self doing a school project on WW1.

''I ask my grandfather about it. I struggle to get him to talk, but when he does talk I re-create those stories.''

He reluctantly tells her about the brutal treatment in the training camps at Sling and Etaples.

While she includes the ''key'' events of his war service, such as the training camps and time on the Western Front, she mixes it with some fictional characters and events.

''It was a terrible place. These were just ordinary Kiwi blokes, farmers, shopkeepers and office workers. It was not that easy to get them to succumb to military discipline.''

The heart of the story is the Battle of Passchendaele and the catastrophic experience of New Zealand soldiers, she said.

Graphic: ODT
Graphic: ODT

All of this is brought to life by Bolwell herself - she plays all three characters, using music and dance along with images of the battle.

''Some things you just cannot express through words.''

Her grandfather was gassed and he is depicted in his hospital bed recalling the battle.

''The thread is me - an adolescent girl trying to piece it all together.''

It is an intense experience for Bolwell.

''You have to learn to conserve energy.''

Bolwell can only remember her grandfather as an unwell man, so that part of the story is very ''poignant'' for her.

''He came home shell-shocked, gassed. There was no help; they were just expected to get on with their normal life.''

So he did. He ran the family farm, got married and had seven children.

But when WW2 started and it came time for his sons to go to war, he collapsed.

''All those suppressed memories of war came back and he ended up at Seacliff Mental Hospital and had electric shock treatment. He was a very unwell man.

''I remember this man sitting in front of the fire with his head in his hands.''

Putting her own family history out for all to see is a tricky thing to do, but there were very few families unaffected by the war and its impacts.

''While it's my own grandfather's story, thousands upon thousands of men went to war ... so many can relate to that experience.''

The play is also another way to show we had not forgotten the sacrifice those men made.

''Anzac Day is so ritualised but it is important to get to the heart of what are deeply personal stories.

''This had repercussions for several generations. How they were when they came back affected many families.''

She is looking forward to touring the play around the South Island and, in particular, to Oamaru, as her grandfather was a North Otago farmer.

''Oamaru is where my grandparents retired to off the family farm, so it's lovely to be able to perform it in a place where my grandfather lived.''

Bolwell also considers Otago home, having grown up and been educated in the region.

''I'm delighted to be going to so much of Otago and Southland.''

Bill Massey's Tourists is Bolwell's fifth play - in 2013, together with Sacha Copland and John Smythe, she toured her play Dancing in the Wake with Arts On Tour New Zealand (AOTNZ) and she also toured her play Double Portrait, about Frances Hodgkins.

In late 2015, Bolwell was awarded a writer's residency at the Robert Lord Writer's Cottage in Dunedin.

She is currently writing a play about Freda du Faur, the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1910, and Lydia Bradey, the first woman to climb Mt Everest solo without oxygen.

The play, Taking the High Ground, opens at Bats Theatre in Wellington in December.


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