It’s 1942. Danny is 14. He writes stories, dodges bullies on the way home from school and dreams of flying in the air force like his big brother, Frank.
While stories of war are nothing new, Matthew Ryan’s Brisbane eschews the usual approach of ‘us versus the enemy’ but instead explores tensions between allied Australian and American troops. Another unusual aspect of this play is seeing the war through the eyes of a child. Children can be hard to write- it is easy to be patronising and write them as much younger than you intend. As someone with a 14-year-old brother, I think Ryan did a convincing job of finding Danny’s voice. He is old enough to comprehend war (as much as anyone can) and to think about the future, yet young enough to still have a lot of emotional growth ahead of him. Dash Kruck brought him to life in an engaging manner, capturing his curiosity and his mixture of youthful certainty and self-doubt.
However, the other characters were not as well developed as Danny. His father was uncommunicative, and his mother followed the stereotypical character arch of becoming crazy with grief. Veronica Neave is capable of playing fabulously strong and nuanced characters, and this role did not give her that opportunity. Danny’s friend, Patty (played by Harriet Dyer), was very strong and lots of fun. She fought against the views of the era, and unashamedly explored her sexuality. Disappointingly, she gained much of her strength from being aggressive and violent. Portrayals of both American and Australian soldiers and female reactions to them were amusing, but sometimes shallow and unflattering generalisations. There is a fine line between questioning past sexism and other prejudices and entrenching them further. On the whole, Brisbane erred on the right side of this line- there were a few cringe-worthy moments of sexism, racism and homophobia, but the very fact they were cringe-worthy is indicative of their value as commentary on the views of that era. The ensemble actors provided some beautiful moments of comedy and historical gobbets. Each moved seamlessly between multiple roles, although special mention must go to Hugh Parker for epitomising the old adage ‘There are no small roles, only small actors.’ He was equally compelling as a sulky and cowardly bully or as blustering war hero General Monash.
Stephen Curtis’ design made exceptional use of height and depth, with the set consisting of two levels. Below was the very cluttered downstairs of a Queenslander- this level was predominantly used for the storyline pertaining to the war. The ‘upstairs’ was a large platform, which functioned as other settings: Danny’s home, the shrine of remembrance, and the famous Cloudland ballroom. Making the Queenslander so large made it easily identifiable as a symbol of Brisbane as a whole. The backdrop- a puzzle of boards stretching right up into the ceiling of the Playhouse, evoked a house and city under construction, as well as the sky. However, in addition to covering the ‘when’ and ‘where’ of the play, the design ideally encompasses some of its themes as well. Given that this play was billed as being about the coming of age of a child and city, it was surprising that the set did not change to reflect growth and development. Instead, change came from David Walter’s lighting design, subtly and efficiently transforming the set to create many different locations.
On reflection, I would argue that perhaps Brisbane is not about the coming of age of the city. It gave no pre-war historical context – so as someone who knows little of Brisbane’s history, I found it difficult to gauge what changes the war caused. Instead of being analytical or didactic, this play simply provides a snapshot of a formative period in the life of our city. Under the direction of Iain Sinclair, the play avoids being a history lesson, but provides enough anecdotes to provoke nostalgia in those who experienced the Brisbane of 1942 and to whet the curiosity of those who didn’t. Brisbane is full of the humour, warmth and the imaginative staging indicative of Ryan’s work. In his programme note, Ryan said ‘It’s impossible to truly capture the past- but we can always capture its spirit’ and he has achieved this with Brisbane.
Brisbane is running at the Playhouse, QPAC until May 2. For more information, visit the Queensland Theatre Company’s website: Brisbane by QTC.