The One Day of the Year is actually about much more than ANZAC Day, the “one day of the year”. It uses the annual commemoration of the nation’s “defining moment” as an occasion to explore Australian’s “classless” society and tensions between father and son, male and female, the highly educated and those who missed out, those at the bottom and those at the top.
But in 2015, the centenary of the Gallipoli landing spotlights the play’s exploration of ANZAC Day and connected questions of war, peace and dealing with the damaging legacy of conflict.
This production, directed by Denis Moore, has a deliberately dreary look. The costumes, by Adrienne Chisholm, are in muted shades of grey/khaki. Set designer Shaun Gurton has created a plain all-grey set that minimally suggests a modest inner-west home. Jason Bovaird’s unobtrusive lighting scheme warms up the cool greys, adding subtle emotional inflections but the effect, with all elements working together, is poetically stylised rather than realistic and feels depressing and claustrophobic.
The most striking visual feature is the backdrop, a much-enlarged Frank Hurley photograph of World War I soldiers silhouetted against a glowing sky. Sublime extracts from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem are woven through the production, their high-culture orchestral tones an almost jarring contrast to the knockabout domesticity of characters and situation. (Britten’s music was coincidentally written in 1961, the same year as the first production of The One Day of the Year.)
The war is always present, the backdrop suggests; right there in the living room or bedroom, while the Cook family drink beer or watch television or bicker about doing the washing up.
Alf Cook (Peter Hardy) lives with wife Dot (Christine Keogh) and their son, university student Hughie (Luke Clayson). Alf is a lift driver bitterly disappointed with his lot in life, and a World War II veteran; family friend Wacka (Don Bridges) volunteered for both World Wars. He was, in fact, at the original ANZAC landing, surviving nine months in the Gallipoli trenches.
The interactions of this group are already strained by the impact of Hughie’s new university-influenced ways of looking at the world. When he reluctantly introduces Jan, his upper-class girlfriend (Olivia Solomons), tensions build to explosive levels.
Alan Seymour’s script is layered with complex ideas. And it’s talky. Many of the scenes are static, involving long discussions around the kitchen table. This cast are capable and sincere performers, but feeling is sometimes elusive. Christine Keogh brings warmth to Dot, although the comic aspects of her repeated “Cup of tea?” could develop a richer pathos. Peter Hardy’s physical presence as Alf anchors the play, and his drunken description of his ANZAC Day adventures give much needed movement. When he polishes Hughie’s shoes, he captures the bewildered blustering vulnerability of so many of men of that generation (my father, for instance). But the awful moment when he strikes Hughie seems to come from nowhere.
However, the heart of the play—when Wacka finally talks about what it was really like at Gallipoli—does have moving authenticity. Right from the first scene, Don Bridges wordlessly convinced me that what Wacka had experienced in conflict still deeply haunted him. Without saying a great deal, his performance is “natural”, settled, giving depth to what he says when he finally does talk.
That one climactic scene suggests the potential for this simple, unfussy production. In fact, I would love to see the play towards the end of its run, when the actors have really relaxed into their characters.
Seymour’s play doesn’t, in the end, answer any of the questions it raises about war or its impact or its commemoration. This production presents each character as flawed but equally deserving of our understanding—which is, really, a triumph of humanity and compassion.
The Parramatta Riverside Theatre season of One Day of the Year is dedicated to the memory of playwright Alan Seymour, who died this week.