“It’s just amazing how war haunts Australia,” says Denis Moore, award-winning director of HIT Productions The One Day of the Year, opening Tuesday March 24 2015 at the Parramatta Riverside Theatres and then touring, including to remote and regional communities.
“Australia has been in every war since the Sudan in the 1870s,” he continues. “We have not missed out on one. I don’t know, I think it’s partly to do with colonialism; it’s somehow to do with displacement. It’s quite a deep thing within our culture.”
Moore’s sense of war’s ghostly presence within Australian culture underlies his approach to this classic Australian play. Written by Alan Seymour and first performed in 1960, it tells the story of conflict between Alf Cook, a World War II veteran (played in this production by Peter Hardy), and his university-student son Hughie (Luke Clayson).
Their tensions focus on Alf’s participation in ANZAC Day marches. For Alf—trapped in a boring job as a lift driver, his life possibilities first narrowed by growing up in the Depression, and then by going off to combat—this is the only day in the entire year when he feels important.
But for Hughie, the diggers’ drunkenness and violence after the march is just disgusting.
The play is set in Sydney’s inner west in “the present”—that is, the time when the play was written. Social-realist stage directions describe a cramped working-class house with an “old enclosed–back-verandah type kitchen” and furniture that is “cheap, dowdy, bought long ago on” on layby.
But, says Moore, “we haven’t done the play in a social-realist setting. I’m very interested in this haunting over several generations of Australians. That is more where the relevance of the play is for me now—less on the specifics of that period and more on the psychological passing down of the damage caused by war.”
One of the big questions raised by the play is still relevant today, 100 years after the Gallipoli landing: how should the bloodbath be commemorated—and, indeed, what is the appropriate way to commemorate war in general?
Back in 1960, The One Day of the Year triggered dramatic responses when it first raised questions about ANZAC Day commemorations. The Drama Advisory Committee of the first Adelaide Arts Festival included the play in its lineup, but the Board of Governors overturned their decision.
Why? “They were scared the RSL—the Returned Services League—might have a negative reaction to the play,” says Moore. “It was a very strong conservative force politically, and it wasn’t afraid to wield that power, certainly as far as the Liberal Party was concerned.”
Moore adds that the play was then “picked up by the Adelaide University Drama Society, an amateur society within the university, and they did the première.” But it continued to stir strong reactions. There was, for instance, a bomb threat at the opening of the first professional production at the Palace Theatre, Sydney. The date was a little provocative: April 26 1961, the day after ANZAC Day.
Alan Seymour left Australia soon afterwards, building a career in London. But clearly the story was important to him. He published a novel based on the play in 1967. “We had the novel in the rehearsal room,” says Moore. “It’s very, very interesting. He’s gone into stream-of-consciousness for all of the characters, writing about what they’re thinking.”
During the 1980s Seymour also re-wrote sections of the script, focusing especially on Hughie’s girlfriend Jan (played here by Olivia Solomons), who had been criticized as “the weakest, least worked-out character in the play”.
Jan—a fellow university classmate of Hughie—is from a well-to-do North Shore family, which introduces class tensions into the play, and raising issues about power and hierarchies in this supposedly “classless” society.
Issues about women’s place in the world emerge through both Jan and Hughie’s mother, Dot (Christine Keogh), who constantly offers cups of tea and fears Alf’s drunkenness.
Of course, Hughie and Alf are struggling with their own gender roles. What does it take to be a man? Is it all about going to war? Is it about earning a living? And are you really a man if your job entails nothing more than going up and down in a lift?
Seymour’s multifaceted characterizations are one of the play’s great strengths. “Each character has a very particular way of speaking,” says Moore. “There are so many plays that you come across where the characters could be interchangeable in terms of their language, and that’s certainly not the case here.”
He explains that Alf “is quite explosive, linguistically and rhetorically. He’s also extremely histrionic in many ways. And obviously, when he’s drunk, there’s that big soliloquy that talks about his drunken spree on ANZAC Day. It’s an amazing explosion of language.”
By contrast, Dot “is less language-confident. She often says she can’t talk to her son properly, and she sort of falls back on clichés.”
Wacka Dawson, the neighbor who is an actual Gallipoli veteran, doesn’t say much: “it takes a lot of prying to get any information out of him regarding World War I. Of course, that’s obviously also a returned soldier’s reticence to talk about the violence and the terrible things that happened.”
Moore attributes Seymour’s successful creation of the characters’ language, in part, to the influence of radio: “It tuned them into language and the different ways that different characters expressed themselves. I really think radio was a very big influence on the ‘50s playwrights. A lot of them wrote for radio.” And in fact Seymour’s own long association with radio began at 15 with his first job as a radio announcer.
The printed program for the first professional production of The One Day of the Year included a reflection by Seymour called “Why Australian Plays?” in which he suggests Australian theatre could capture something about us, “so that we recognize ourselves with a sense of shock or pleasure.”
It seems that Seymour’s play has, over the years, offered both shock and pleasure. Even in 2015, the xenophobia of Alf’s opening speech is shocking, as he complains about “new Au-bloody-stralians”. “Zenophobia’s a big issue now, and that’s another current thing in the play,” says Moore.
But at the same time, we find pleasure in this 55-year-old theatrical classic and its complex and compassionate exploration of unanswered questions still niggling away.
“Yes,” says Moore. “There’s certainly a lot of talking points after seeing it and also, hopefully, the way we’ve done it might even add to that.”
This is the first of three shows at Riverside Theatres in 2015 to commemorate the ANZAC Centenary.
Note: Contains strong language and adult themes. Recommended 15+