TURMOIL: Actors from The Australian Theatre for Young People portray young men of their own age a century ago and their struggles in and after Gallipoli.
TURMOIL: Actors from The Australian Theatre for Young People portray young men of their own age a century ago and their struggles in and after Gallipoli. contributed

Young soldiers'words march onto stage

PLAYWRIGHT Ross Mueller said "it was like working with sacred text" to transform the original words and diaries of Gallipoli soldiers into theatre.

The result, A Town Named War Boy, is on stage at The Art House, Wyong on April 5 and 6.

Theatre critic Glenn Saunders said, "of all the Gallipoli centenary commemorations - on stage and screen, in music and theatre - this is definitely one of the strongest".

A joint commission by the State Library of NSW and The Australian Theatre for Young People, the project was like no other for Ross, already an award-winning playwright, as he felt "the weight of responsibility" to do the young writers of 100 years ago justice.

His aim was to capture the emotions and spirit of those young men as they headed overseas to fight, their camaraderie in the face of horror, their sense of humour which they used as a suit of armour, as well as the joys and difficulties they faced returning home.

There are over 250 diaries in the State Library collection and Ross read sections of virtually all of them, concentrating on about 30 to create his ensemble piece.

Some, he said, had "lightening-rod appeal; the subject matter was jumping off the page".

He said the librarians knew the work so well that "the way they introduced me to the works was like they were introducing me to friends".

"They would tell me, you have to read so and so, he's got such a great sense of humour, or he's a real larrikin," Ross said.

"They have a real affection for the writers and it's easy to see why."

He said he was constantly surprised by the soldiers' turn of phrase, which he described as often beautiful and poetic.

"The amount of physical and psychological stress they were under was incredible, and they were so articulate, and their handwriting was so beautiful.

"They were using whatever scraps of paper they had available, but they still had this incredible copperplate handwriting."

He said it had been difficult to set aside any of the precious words as he blended different individual experiences into just four characters, who embody the voices and narratives of the group.

Ross said he had found the audition process very emotional, as it struck him for the first time that the innocent young ATYP men in front of him were the same age as those who had written the words, and yet the huge gap in experience between the generations.

"I've seen the play itself several times now, and I think that hits home every time you see the show.

"They are flesh and bone of the same age, and they are funny and sad, and it works," he said.

"I felt like the luckiest writer in the country to get this job and I had such respect for the source material that I didn't want to get it wrong.

"If it's worked, and I feel it has, that's a relief."

He hopes audiences will "get to know these guys and enjoy their time with them" but also look beyond the historical to see the importance of having a voice in the direction our country and our world takes, and not allowing the mistakes of the past to be repeated.

Tickets for the play at 8pm Thursday, April 5 and 10am Friday, April 6 are $25-$35. Call 4335 1485 or go to www.thearthousewyong.com.au.

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