By Alan Hopgood
Gold Coast Arts Centre
Every Australian, it seems, has to have a nickname, especially men. And the names are often ironic, like `Bluey for someone with red hair, or `Shorty for a tall fellow.
But the nickname of `Weary Dunlop, one of Australias greatest heroes, was not an ironic one. Sir Edward Dunlop may have been a tireless doctor and energetic leader of his men during the infamous period when Australian prisoners of war were forced by their brutal Japanese captors to build the notorious Burma railway, his nickname derived from another British-Australian customer of making links back from a persons proper name through puns and homonyms. Dunlop is a famous rubber company that made car tyres, so `tyres became `tired became `Weary, and the name stuck.
During his term of imprisonment, `Weary Dunlop kept hundreds of notes about the conditions in the camps. Written on stolen scraps of paper, and hidden wherever he could find a spot unknown to the Japanese guards, these notes later formed the basis of a remarkable book called `The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, first published in 1986, just six years before he died at the age of 85.
Alan Hopgoods new play, called simply Weary , recreates this period of Wearys life, both in real time and in flashback, beginning with the old `Weary (played by Ronald Falk) beginning to sort through his papers in preparation for the daunting task of getting them ready for publication. No wonder he comes across as literally weary, when he has boxes and boxes of scrappy scribbled notes to sort out.
Two hours of an old mans reminiscences would make an audience equally weary, so Alan Hopgood has peopled his script with the ghost of an unknown soldier in the camps, who also takes on the characters of people mentioned in the diaries, and the young Dunlop himself, so that the old mans memory can be acted out against back-projections of the various locations.
Alan Hopgood is one of Australias most distinguished playwrights, Roger Hodgman a highly-respected award-winning director, and the actors (Neil Pigot and David Trendinnick play the two young men in the flashbacks) are all well-known to Australian audiences.
With all these things going for it (as well as Matt Scotts lighting and Shaun Gurtons economical and versatile set), why did I find the production so dull, so wearisome?
Both playwright and director acknowledged the problems inherent in transferring Wearys words to the stage. `I consider the Diaries to be a work of great quality as literature to be read, rather than performed, said Hopgood, while Hodgman was concerned about how to `depict the dramatic and often violent events in a way that was theatrically effective and did not trivialise them.
Part of the problem is that we have already seen many dramatic accounts of the horrors of the Japanese prison camps on film and television. No playwright can emulate such graphic visual recreations of the most brutal events, so a script has to take a different angle, and rely on implications and verbal imagery of almost Shakespearean proportions to create an equally strong effect.
Weary Dunlops own diaries, moving as they are to read, dont translate to the stage with the same power, and Hopgoods technique of dramatising the past doesnt quite work. Whether its because the actors are tired, halfway through their Australian tour, or because the script just cant conquer the stolid hill that the diaries are, I dont know, but the audience showed little reaction, certainly during the first half.
Dunlop was a hero, a superb leader and doctor, a brave man who stood up for his men and wasnt afraid to put his own life on the line, but in this play hes just dull, both as an old man and even when performing his quiet heroics in the camps. Charismatic he may have been to his men, but on stage hes stiff-upper-lip to the point of tedium.
Weary is a good try, a valiant attempt to pay homage to this great medical and military figure, but perhaps some heroes are better left to memories and words on paper.
Directed by Roger Hodgman
Played 16 19 March at Gold Coast, thence to Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney