Directed by Mark Gerard Nagle
Genesian Theatre, Sydney
Season: 11 April – 2 May
With the ANZAC centenary approaching in a few weeks time, it is timely that the Genesian Theatre is staging Simpson, J. 202. Written by Richard Beynon and directed by Mark Gerard Nagle, the play puts forth the life of John (Jack) Simpson Kirkpatrick. Also known as “The Man with a Donkey”, Jack is an ANZAC legend who saved hundreds of lives carrying the wounded on the back of his donkey through shellfire to safety at Gallipoli. The great strength of this play is the fleshing out of Simpson, to produce the true Jack on stage, the loving larrikin purported in the legend.
Contrary to my expectations entering the theatre, the play focused more on Simpson’s early life and personal relationships than on his courageous wartime acts. Humour was employed continuously throughout the piece, each character displaying moments of wit and with Jack portrayed by Ryan Bown, frequently causing amusement. Greater emphasis on his family situation established a firm foundation for the audience to relate to Jack. Jack’s relationship with his Mother, acted by Julia Kennedy Scott, was a prominent focus, and stood out as a highly authentic relationship on the stage. Both Bown and Kennedy Scott shone in the cast, seeming very comfortable in their character’s shoes and thus being a delight for the audience to watch, your eyes naturally gravitating towards them. Dialect work specific to South Shields in England, coached by Mark Anderson, was impressive by these two cast members, as well as Penelope Berkemeier who portrayed Jack’s sister Annie.
An immense sense of humanity exuded from the character of Jack, which Bown skilfully drew from the historical icon. His fervour for animals was palpable on stage and persisted as a constant passion throughout his life journey. A true larrikin, we were presented with the epitome of the ANZAC legend – using his good spirit to improvise in a dire situation, selflessly looking out for his mates. Jack was depicted as a simpleton, free of any pretension, who walked to the beat of his own drum without necessarily great reverence for authority. It is interesting to note that any depiction of history is limited by simplifications of reality into a short story format with clear narrative line. Undergoing some historical research about Simpson after the play, I discovered that he actually deserted the army three times, a less favourable fact omitted by the play. If you’re interested in other points of historical contention, I suggest you take up some research as well. As with any history, the glorious ANZAC story is not the only existing perspective.
Clever directorial decisions were required by this play, to account for a myriad of characters with only a limited cast. Pleasingly, Nagle achieved this effect through the continual discussion and framing of an individual by the characters, to cause the persona to materialise as another character in the audience’s mind. Critically, this was best achieved with Jack’s Father and with the amusing creation of Annie’s flat-footed husband. Small details amassed to form a character with his or her own idiosyncrasies, without even appearing on stage.
The play did struggle with plot difficulties, rooted in Beynon’s writing. Whilst taking on a strong pace during the first act, the second act seemed to drag at points and some scenes needed to be clipped, the gist of scenes being understood by the audience without reiteration or inclusion of unnecessary matter. It then proceeded to abruptly end, touching on Simpson’s wartime acts yet unable to sufficiently portray the events due to their inability to lead a donkey onto the stage (instead suitably substituted by sound effects), and cast limitations to immerse the audience in an authentic depiction of war. These pitfalls were unfortunate in light of general strong characterisation by the cast and best directorial attempts to avert the issues.
Split staging was utilised to create contrast and maintain the connection across continents smoothly, bridging the rift between the war front and England, with a direct connection developed through continuous letter writing between Jack and his home. Simple set and prop changes were easy on the eye and aided understanding of the vast movement between settings. This was enhanced by lighting projected onto a white backdrop, changing to show the shift between days and variation of weather. Nagle conducted both direction and set design, which seemed to have allowed for the congruous alignment of the set design with his concept for staging. Lighting effects were further employed in scenes of warfare, which was very effective. Genuine WWI costumes were utilised in Susan Carveth’s costume design, creating an authentic edge for costuming.
It is vital that we commemorate the ANZACs, and that we consider particularly the courageous actions of prominent individuals. Furthermore, it is crucial that we continuously reconsider what this means for the basis of a national identity, with Simpson epitomising the ANZAC spirit. Simpson, J. 202 is an important play, especially given our current historical context. We must remember, we must continue to be analytical – and what better form to do this than theatre?