‘Home’, a musical play of New Zealand and World War I

Weaving Scottish songs into a New Zealand war. (The Fringe Festival) 

Artistic direction: Jacqueline Coats; graphic design: Katie Chalmers; singers: Rowena Simpson and Stuart Coats; piano: Douglas Mews

Tararua Tramping Club, Moncrieff Street, Mount Victoria

Thursday 25 February 2010

The New Zealand war, so advertised in the production’s publicity, turns out to be not the land wars of the 19th century, but World War I, specifically the Gallipoli experience to which it has become fashionable to attribute the emergence of some sort of national New Zealand soul and identity.

The promotion also offers the following: “‘Home’ is an original performance of song and spoken word, weaving the story of Scottish immigrants into the story of a nation.  The performance uses diary entries and letters to tell the story of Maggie, a recent immigrant from Scotland, and Johnnie, a first generation New Zealander, who meet in Wellington just before the outbreak of WWI . The text is set to traditional Scottish folk songs from a book bought in Invercargill in the 1890s.”

It is a duodrama, with an important third performer in Douglas Mews who plays the piano accompaniments to the songs and some music on his own.

The action takes place in the very untheatrical space, a former church belonging to the Tararua Tramping Club. It’s 1910; the only props are two clothes lines with blankets hanging on them; there is no lighting or scenery to help distinguish the changes of place later in the action, from a New Zealand farm to the steep hills of Gallipoli.

After Douglas Mews has played a prelude consisting of a couple of Scottish folk songs, Johnny, Stuart Coats, welcomed us to a concert by the local Caledonian Society. He sings the first stanza of Mairi’s Wedding, calling up Maggie, a recent arrival from Scotland, to sing the rest. There’s initial attraction between them, a tactical blunder that temporarily separates them, then love which is again disturbed for a while by political differences (he’s a Massey supporter – not unexpected for a young man proud of his farming credentials while she, from a poor background, is Liberal), and then the war which inspires Johnny to enlist.

Scottish and North country songs illuminate each phase of the story, some tenuously. But both singers showed a vocal skill, musicality and theatrical flair that gave the piece its reality and proved the main source of enjoyment. Coats’s voice is coloured by a tremulous vibrato that recalls an older singing style that enhances the show’s authenticity. It would not be fair to say that Rowena Simpson’s accomplishment in early music styles through study in Holland and performance with various important baroque and classical ensembles was demanded here but her vocal talents were a major asset in the performance. The broad Scottish accent that she adopted was convincing if a bit hard to understand at times.

The core of the drama is conveyed through letters exchanged between the two, which each reads either as writer or recipient. Knowing, with hind-sight, the high risk of death or serious injury in that ill-conceived campaign, tension was automatic; the story exploited it well and the singers made it more believable than the unforgiving staging might have allowed.

The tension held till the very end when reports of Johnny’s missing were revealed as the result of a not uncommon name confusion, and he returns with only minor wounds to his happy wife.

The story prompted me to reflect on recent reading about the First World War. New Zealanders like to paint the Gallipoli experience as the key nation-building event, forged in the horror of casuality rates per head of population that were something extraordinary.

But it’s odd how our knowledge is so confined to the relatively limited British and Empire involvement in the war.

The chronology in the programme notes that 2721 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli, when New Zealand’s total population was just over a million. In the following year, 1916, the prolonged and hideous battle of Verdun claimed some 160,000 French lives, when France’s population was 40 million, some 60 percent greater than New Zealand’s losses on a per capita basis. German losses were not far short of the French.