Thursday, 7 March 2019

Underground - Theatre Review

What: Underground
When: 7 - 9 March 2019
Where: Gasworks Theatre
Written by: Christine Croyden
Directed by: Sara Grenfell
Performed by: Emma Annand, Ezra Bix, Margot Knight, Tori McCann, and Billy Sloane
Designed by: Christina Logan Bell
Lighting by: Shane Grant
Sound by: Ryan Smedley
Stage Managed by: Rachel Nagy
Billy Sloane and Emma Annand
Coinciding with International Women's Day, Gasworks is presenting a 3 day season of a new play which focuses on one of the most infamous - and amazing - people of World War II, Nancy Wake, aka The White Mouse. Underground is a 'hallucinatory review' of Wake's life which leads to some very intriguing commentary on Australian gender politics, although in an indirect way.

Nancy Wake was a resistance fighter in World War II. Nancy Wake was The White Mouse. Nancy Wake was number 1 on the Gestapo's most wanted list. Nancy Wake was the most highly decorated woman internationally after World War II. Nancy Wake was never honoured in her own country for these achievements until 2004 when she received the honour of Companion of the Order of Australia. Nancy Wake was a troublesome woman. That is all I have to say about Australia.

Moving on to the woman herself, Wake found her way to Europe in the 1920's as a journalist and, in fact, one of her first assignment there was to interview Adolf Hitler. Over the years, as a correspondent, Wake got to see the persecution of the Jews first hand and after a particularly brutal event in Vienna she vowed to help any way she could.

Wake married a wealth industrialist and together they joined the French Resistance and used their resources to help Jewish people and allied servicemen escape Paris. Eventually it became to dangerous and Wake escaped to England where she trained as a special agent - rumour has it she was one of the best!

Wake then parachuted back into France and was instrumental in organising troops and resources in preparation for D-Day. Statistically speaking, the number of German deaths compared with the fatalities of the men under her command was a phenomenal feat.

She didn't just give orders though. When necessary it was her hands wrapped around a German neck. To quote one of her commanding officers, Henri Tardivat, "She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men."

After spending time in France and also being asked to write book and lyrics for a musical called The White Mouse, playwright Croyden decided to create this play, Underground. Underground is a retrospective reminiscence by an elderly Wake (Knight) as she is being tended by a carer. It begins with her chatting to her long dead French husband and moves into memory sequences about major events such as parachuting back into France and the universally known bicycle ride story.

Characters flit in and out of view behind black, wispy curtains and the story gently unfolds until the end of the World War II, when we return to our not so frail but definitely aged Wake. Grenfell (director) has created a soft and respectful montage of images and stories and perhaps the best word for this production is gentle. Scenes slip from one to the other with the mood and tempo of the Dietrich songs being soulfully sung by chanteuse Sabine (McCann).

This is perhaps the biggest problem with Underground. The story is one of danger, fear, risk, and great loss but the edge of adrenaline is missing much of the time which tends to allow the audience to drift in and out of the story just as Wake is drifting in and out of her memories. Part of the problem here, too, lies in the realisation at the end we know very little more about Wake then we did when the play started. Nothing is revealed except, perhaps, that this woman is feisty.

Knight's elderly Wake has so much attitude she is great fun to watch without becoming curmudgeonly. In very special moments of the play (like the infamous bike ride) she works side by side with the younger self (Annand) and this technique in particular really helps us see the young woman in the older body and reminds us that all of our seniors have a youth and a story that still live within them.

Everyone in the cast is great, but I was really impressed by Sloane (Denden/Nazi). Both of his characters resonated with an energy, life, and interpretation which went beyond just playing the action. His characters had personality and intention which were one of the few markers in the show which demonstrated stakes and urgency.

I was also incredibly impressed by the design elements of the show. Grenfell has worked with the team well to bring a strong and cohesive vision and tone which will impress people who still have these circumstances in their families living memories.

Grant (lighting) and Smedley (Sound) in particular worked incredibly well to bring to life a shadowy world of shock and obscurity. They really bring the 'cloak and dagger' aspects to the production and nothing was more successful than the shadowing shapes and oppressive sounds they created for the parachute scene.

Underground is a beautiful play and Wake's story is an important one. Unfortunately Croyden has focussed too much on trying to let us see the woman and not enough on helping us see the deeds. Without us understanding the outrages she would have had to pursue we have no need to have her humanised.

Here is the real story: What is it Wake is supposed to have been apologising for across the rest of her life? What is a 'difficult' woman? Why are her motives questioned? Why have we not celebrated her achievements? Why is there no statue in her honour in Australia?

Whilst Underground itself is a little unassuming, the questions it raises for us in modern times in Australia - and especially on International Women's Day - are huge and are resonating across our political sphere every morning right now. Are women kept down because of lack of merit or because they have too much merit...and strength...and skill...? Just how terrified of us are men?

3 Stars

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