No vets' home for old men

Actors (from left) Peter Hayden (Gustave), Geoffrey Heath (Phillippe) and Simon O'Connor (Henri)...
Actors (from left) Peter Hayden (Gustave), Geoffrey Heath (Phillippe) and Simon O'Connor (Henri) star in Heroes, an award-winning comedy set in 1959 about three War World 1 soldiers in a veterans' home. Photo by Jane Dawber.
They may be disabled old codgers but they are still as sharp as tacks and full of dreams and desires. Charmian Smith talks to the cast of Heroes, a special tribute to forgotten veterans, full of wit and humour, but with an underlying sadness and wistfulness.

Three old gents stuck in a veterans' home together - and yet they all dare to dream of something more. It may sound an unusual scenario for an award-winning comedy, but Heroes, written by Gerald Sibleyras and translated from French by Tom Stoppard, is full of whimsy and wit, according to director Lara Macgregor and actors Peter Hayden, Geoffrey Heath and Simon O'Connor.

Set in France in 1959, the play, which won the Olivier Award for best new comedy in 2006, opens at the Fortune Theatre on August 25.

The plot, such as it is, is simple. The three old soldiers, veterans of World War 1, have commandeered a terrace at the back of the hospital where they spend their days. They have a magnificent view of poplars and the idea comes up that they could escape and hike up to the poplars. They plan to take the stone dog that sits on the terrace - which two of them believe moves - with them.

"To me the dog is a metaphor for the soldiers that died on the field. Regardless of the weight of the soldier, if he died he had to come out with you, so when these chaps decide they are going to visit the poplars, the dog has to come too," Macgregor says.

"I think you get a terrific sense of the history of these guys, a sense of them as young men, a sense of the comradeship but also a sense of competition between them," O'Connor says.

"They still have aspirations to a greater or lesser extent, so in that sense they are representative of elderly people. They are still vital, functional people full of desire, full of humour. The fact they are old war veterans is part of the setting. There's a psychology there that goes much deeper. I think there's a really potent sense of wistfulness that runs through it of loss and regret and also yearning," he says.

All the men are damaged in some way. One has lost half a leg, another has psychological issues and the third has shrapnel in his brain that makes him drift into sleep. However, the sense of comradeship is strong, as always with soldiers.

Even though these three were not in the war together, they have a shared experience.

Heath says you find that comradeship even now in people coming back from Afghanistan.

"Imagine if you are fighting, especially World War 1. As we know, you could be dead in a second - in any war you could be; it's such a slaughter. They have to rely so much on each other and it carries on here.

They look out for each other and care about each other, even though they may get cross," he says.

One of the characters believes he is about to be murdered by the head nun, which leads them to plan an escape.

"It's like the last grasp at youth in a way, the last opportunity to make the most of this burst of energy," says Macgregor.

O'Connor adds: "It's breaking out of your everyday. There's a sense that no matter how debilitated you are with age or how restrained you are in your circumstances, there's a real sense of daring to dream. The boredom of this place is just deadly. There are three guys locked in with each other, disabled in various ways, ancient, and in the end they are all daring to dream of something more. I think that's wonderful."

You may think it's about three old men all going a bit daffy, but it's a witty play, Hayden adds.

The humour is wicked and slightly ironic, the characters not letting each other get away with inflated egos or exaggerated claims - there's a bit of the tall poppy thing going on, he says.

The actors are particularly enjoying the writing and hope the audience will too.

Macgregor compares it to Shakespeare: sharp, full of great rhythms, alliteration and antithesis.

Although the play is set in France, the characters are universal. At Montecillo, the war veterans' home in Dunedin, there are similar themes, according to Hayden.

"They look after each other; they support each other - or hate each other's guts, which is like a lot of communities. They certainly don't want to be patronised and certainly don't want to be maudlin about their injuries. They can't be at home; they have to be in care like these old three; they are damaged," he says.

The theatre has interviewed some of the Montecillo veterans for a trailer on their website.

Macgregor says: "When you meet these men who are obviously physically slowed down or disabled in some way and you feel yourself starting to become patronising - not intentionally but just couching the way you speak - you very fast realise these are human beings with everything over you in their knowledge, and experiences I'll never have."

See it
Heroes, by Gerald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard, opens at the Fortune Theatre on August 25. Directed by Lara Macgregor, it features veteran Dunedin actors Simon O'Connor and Peter Hayden, and Geoffrey Heath, a veteran actor from Christchurch.

Sneak peek
• Reading from Heroes, today 12.30pm, ground floor, Dunedin City Library.


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