Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Theatre Review: The Glass Soldier

We are theatre subscribers at the MTC. Last night we attended a performance of "The Glass Soldier" at the Playhouse. The play is by Hannie Rayson.

It tells the story of Nelson Ferguson, who was a soldier in the First World War, who when in London he fell in love with Madeline. The first act largely is set on the Western Front depicting the horrors that were inflicted on the soldiers in the trenches as well as some scenes set in London, sometimes with the soldiers at the front and denizens of London Society overlapping. The London scenes not only establish the love between Nelson and Madelaine but also that Nelson is a painter. Madelaine imagines their life together after the war with Nelson as a famous painter. She asked him to promise not to die, which reluctantly he did. Ofcause not all soldiers die but all are damaged in some way.

The climactic scene of the first act occurs in a church, near Villers-Bretonneux. Nelson, the artist, is admiring the beauty of the stained glass windows, when the Church and surrounding village was bombed. As the playwright herself says: "One of Nelson's last images before he was gassed was in a church in France with a stained-glass window. The church was bombed and the window was shattered. I use it as a metaphor: over the century there have been moments of peace shattered by war. This is kind of about the quest to pick up the pieces of fractured, fragmented lives to let in the light."

Nelson loses most of his sight in the gas attack and the rest of the play is largely about the consequences of this affliction.

Nelson returns to Australia and thinks that Madelaine has deserted him. In reality she has lost track of him after the gas attack and took some time to find him. She arrives in Melbourne where Nelson initially rejects her, but when he learns of her struggle to find him they are reconciled and marry. Amazingly, Nelson who is almost blind, finds a job at an art teacher.

Nelson and his family and friends struggle through the Great Depression, and then World War 2 arrives on the scene. While I was watching the early WW2 scenes I wondered if people at that time thought "Oh no, it is happening again." Soon after Kerry Armstrong, playing the older Madelaine voiced the same thought. (I wonder if this was a common response to WW2, and will try to research it.) A new generation of young men are now going off to war again. Although Nelson and Madelaine's son is spared during the fighting, Nelson's friend Wolfie's son is killed.

Throughout the play there is a tension between family life - the wife and children - and the war buddies who share an amazing bond having suffered together in the trenches. Although Nelson is mainly damaged physically, he is still haunted by the war. As Madelaine says at one stage, "I sleep with him and when Nelson has a night in the trenches, so do I." His friend Wolfie is not physically damaged but is emotionally crippled by the war. Although Madelaine attempts to support Wolfie she feels left out of a relationship that is bonded in experiences that she has never had.

The last scenes are set during the Vietnam War, just before the first Moratorium. By now Nelson and his son have started a stained glass business and are making a success of it. This makes a connection with the incident that originally took Nelson's eyesight.

The play finishes on a upbeat note. Nelson's sight is restored by a corneal transplant. The wife of the rapacious landlord who they struggled against during the Depression arrives with a commission for a stained glass window memorialising her husband, who was a pillar of the church. And although they have misgivings, the family accepts the commission - they need the money. Finally, Wolfie has at last come to terms with his war experiences and with the loss of his son.

Although the finish seems a little too cheerful the play is based on a true story. Nelson did work as a teacher - he was a better teacher than a painter. The family did set up a stained glass company, which is still operating in Melbourne.

This play had some resonances for me. Nelson was gassed near Villers-Bretonneux on 17th April 1918. My grandfather was shot near Villers-Bretonneux less that two weeks later, on 30 April 1918.

The Glass Soldier reinforces the point that I made in my post Valuing Old Folks, which coincidentally I wrote just hours earlier than seeing the play.

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