Anzac in the spotlight

Award-winning playwright Dave Armstrong. Photo supplied.
Award-winning playwright Dave Armstrong. Photo supplied.
Award-winning playwright Dave Armstrong has not one but two productions at Wanaka's Festival of Colour. And both ask plenty of questions, writes Shane Gilchrist.

The 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings might be looming, but the last thing Dave Armstrong wanted to do was set another play in 1915.

The Wellington playwright's latest work, Anzac Eve, which has its world premiere next week at the Festival of Colour, Wanaka, attempts to look at Gallipoli from the perspective of younger people, as opposed to that of historians.

''I've written a lot about World War 1,'' Armstrong says from his home in Wellington earlier this week.

''King and Country, which has been performed at the Festival of Colour, was set at that time, and was about the soldiers. I have also worked on the Gallipoli exhibition that is opening [today] at Te Papa.

''However, I was keen to examine the ritual of young New Zealanders and Australians going off to Gallipoli, basically for a party.''

In summary, Anzac Eve is based on the interaction of two New Zealand guys and two Australian women who meet at Gallipoli the night before Anzac Day.

As the 20-somethings prepare for the dawn ceremony, they debate the Anzac experience: is it just a convenient myth?

How relevant is the futile century-old campaign today?

And why are Aussies and Kiwis always competing?

''They discuss all sorts of issues, from national identity, Afghanistan and Iraq, what it means to be an Australian and New Zealander and the relationship between the two countries,'' Armstrong explains.

''It also explores myths, such as the Anzac relationship.

''One character claims there are stories of New Zealand and Australian troops actually not getting on very well before Gallipoli; another points out that here they all are drinking together, so therefore there is a special bond; one person's version is that it was a needless invasion; another thinks it was the birthplace of our nation, a heroic thing.

''Three of the characters are extremely respectful. They are following in the footsteps of ancestors. But one character suggests the soldiers should have known better, that they had a choice, that perhaps they should have been questioning what they were being asked to do.

''That, to me, is quite an alternative view. It's quite provocative.''

Commissioned by the Festival of Colour and funded by the New Zealand World War 1 Centenary Fund, Anzac Eve has more to do with questions than answers.

''I don't believe in telling people what I think,'' Armstrong says.

''I like to present different points of view. I have a lot of sympathy for all sides.

''The interesting thing about Gallipoli is they were volunteers. No one made them go.

''That said, I get mad when people now say, 'Oh, I wouldn't have gone'. I read an interesting article that said 21-year-olds back then were like 15-year-olds today. They weren't as worldly. They basically did what the Church, parents or employers told them.

''They were doing what was expected of them.''

Armstrong points out the two performances of Anzac Eve next week will be ''workshopped'' versions.

''We've only had limited rehearsal time. It's quite a simple play, however, so hopefully it'll be a proper performance. It's never been performed before either. This will be its first run.''

• Armstrong's other play at the Festival of Colour, Central, examines contemporary issues of conservation and landscape, while also ruminating on greed and the trade-off between ambition and happiness.

Aucklander Michael Caughey has it all: a successful screenwriting career in the US, a beautiful actress girlfriend Cherie, and a Central Otago vineyard.

He has a chance to do what he wants (make an art movie starring Cherie), but a cut-throat Hollywood producer is placing other temptations within view.

As Michael and Cherie struggle with the issue of money versus art, Brian, a local builder, completes a deck, and Karen, a young Invercargill housekeeper, keeps the household running.

Central was largely written while Armstrong was on a Wild Creations residency at Bannockburn for six weeks at the end of 2013.

''I just went for bike rides and talked to people and read the paper. I also talked to the Department of Conservation, because they funded my time down there. I ended up doing sampling of the endangered chafer beetle, which somehow works its way into the play.

''The play shouldn't be called Central; it should be called New Zealand, because the issues and questions are the same everywhere: Whose landscape is it? Who has the right to build there? There are issues of affordable housing, too.

''I think people expected me to write about villains building subdivisions and heroes saving the landscape, but actually the play examines things quite differently. The heart of the play is about asking who has the right to the land,'' Armstrong explains.

''We have people like me who say we shouldn't change the landscape, but I still like my lattes and nice food, so who's going to serve me a coffee if we don't have affordable housing?

''No one doesn't agree Central is beautiful. Everyone appreciates it. But whose place is it? Often, those most vociferous about preserving a place are from out of town.''

Yet Central is also about relationships, even a lack of love, as well as ambition and materialism, Armstrong says.

''I also explore how people often say they are going to do what they want to once they've finished what they're doing. They never do.

''In a way, it's a cautionary tale to myself: beware of chasing the money and doing what people ask.''


Dave Armstrong

• Dave Armstrong has twice won the award for Best New New Zealand Play at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards (Niu Sila, The Tutor) and Best Comedy Script at the 2003 AFTA Television Awards (Spin Doctors).

• His musical play King and Country has played to festivals throughout New Zealand, and the radio adaptation was highly commended in the 2007 Media Peace Awards.

• Armstrong co-created the TV comedy Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, which has screened in New Zealand and Australia.


The plays

Anzac Eve will be performed at the Wanaka Masonic Lodge on Friday, April 24 (11am and 6pm), and on Saturday, April 25 (noon).

Central will be performed at Queenstown Memorial Hall on Tuesday, April 21 (7pm), and at Lake Wanaka Centre on Friday, April 24 (7pm).


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