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Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Riverside Theatres presents A Riverside Production, SHELLSHOCK by Justin Fleming, at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 30 July – 8 August.

Shellshock is a new Australian work, by Justin Fleming, having its World Premiere at Parramatta. The play was commissioned by Riverside in 2013 to be part of the ANZAC Centenary in 2015.

In the Writer’s notes in the program, Mr Fleming, tells us that it was the Director, Wayne Harrison, who gave him

a snippet of fact to ignite the process (of writing): a soldier took home a baby tortoise from Gallipoli in 1915 and that tortoise is still alive. After confirming this snippet online, I began to build an elaborate fiction.

What gave Mr Fleming more security for his fiction was an alert to a painting by the famous British artist, Stanley Spencer, THE RESURRECTION OF THE SOLDIERS, at the Sandham Memorial Chapel, which has an extraordinary detail of a soldier calmly stroking a small tortoise.

The play begins with a shellshocked Australian soldier, Matthew Lindsay, in a hospital after the Gallipoli landings, during World War I, enquiring about his mate, Herman, who had been with him in battle. One hundred years later we find ourselves on a family property in the outback country of Australia with the relatives of that soldier: Matthew’s grandson, Jack Lindsay (Jack Finsterer), Jack’s son, Tom (Benson Jack Anthony) and the matriarch, June (Sandy Gore). Young Tom has the care of part of the family inheritance, an animal brought from Gallipoli, a tortoise called, Herman. A news story, inadvertently, brings international attention to the tortoise, and the Turkish Government despatches an animal repatriation agent, Adlie Goymen (Francesca Savige) to retrieve the animal and to have it passed back to Turkey as part of the ANZAC  Centenary celebrations, to demonstrate the Peace and Co-operation between the two nations. The complications, government and family, become the drama/content of the play, and are told to us through a narrator, a necessary shape shifter, a man of many parts (Yalin Ozucelik).

Inside a beautiful Design by Anna Gardiner, that features rustic , ‘bush’ furnishings, with a period-framed centre screen, which is used to project documentation footage and other information, and as a ‘face’ for the enchanting rod-puppetry of some of the story-telling, these five actors deliver story of gentle sentiment and growing tensions. The target audience, for the playwright, is that of young adolescents and on the day I attended the play wooed that audience with great ease and pleasure – genuine laughter and absorption and tensed expectation around the twists and turns of Mr Fleming’s narrative. Too, the adults had a very pleasing time. The recognition of the truisms around computer and iPhone technology and the ‘hip’ vernacularisms of young Tom scored, especially, high response from all parties present. Cute!

I felt the writing, sometimes, to be a trifle overstuffed with literary allusions and educative facts (however interesting) that kept one a trifle distanced, as they say in Brecht-land, ‘verfrendungseffecked’ away, from the full arc of the emotional narrative. The ballast to this distraction, however, was the simple, understated work from all the company of actors, guided by the very firm and reliable Direction of Mr Harrison, within this  old-fashioned architecture and mechanisms of theatrical storytelling. Young Mr Anthony, as Tom, with his very winning, assured self, replete with a knowing sense of humour kept one invested in the many ‘problems’ of the character: the death of his mum, the burgeoning relationship of his grieving father with the ‘envoy’ from Turkey, the political feistiness of his anti-war grandmother, the ‘ignorance’ difficulties of the language and communication ‘modes’ of the young, that the adults have with him, and the loss, tracking and adventures to the looking for, and finding of Herman, across the world – are all kept alert and balanced. I, too, especially, enjoyed the relaxed clarity of the work from Ms Savige,as Adile, a romantic possibility with a duplicitous need, and the bewildered but charming charisma of Mr Finsterer, as Jack.

The support contribution from Matthew Marshall and his Lighting Design; Nate Edmondson with his Sound Design; Sue Wallace with her puppet creation and performance (rod and mechanistic Herman); Martin Kinnane with the Projection Design and the Original Music by Joseph Tawadros (featuring the Oud) are of an exemplary order.

SHELLSHOCK, has been written on commission for a young audience, by Riverside Theatre, Produced by Camilla Rountree. I expect and hope the production has a life, for it is charming, educative and good theatre. My audience ate it up and swallowed it whole, with empathetic relish. Forget Harry Potter and his team of mates, my audience had moved onto Tom and Herman as their new heroes of theatrical idolatry. If it were a book too, it would sell like hot-cakes, I reckon. Mr Fleming???