Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Red Cross Letters

Verity: I’ll be opening a new show on Wednesday 3rd August at The Space in the Adelaide Festival Centre. Well, it’s a new-old show, called The Red Cross Letters. It’s the most verbatim piece I’ve ever been associated with, with every word spoken by the actors taken from a selection from 8,000 packets of letters held by the State Library of SouthAustralia. The correspondence is between the (mostly South) Australian Red Cross Information Bureau, and the bereaved relatives of soldiers lost, killed or wounded during World War 1. It’s one of the most comprehensive collections of such letters in the world. A treasure.

The current, fully-staged show (presented by the State Theatre Company of SA and directed by Andy Packer, from the Slingsby Company) has developed from an initial reading, held in 2013. This new version is supplemented by more information about the lives of particular soldiers than was available in 2013; and – this being Adelaide – no sooner had initial publicity started for the show than yet more new information appeared.

One of ‘my’ soldiers was a young man, the longed-for son, born after four daughters to a family in country Mintaro, who, the day after his 20th birthday in October 1917 died as a machine gunner amongst the carnage of Passchendaele on the Western Front. There’s a particularly affecting letter from his distraught, if ever-so-slightly histrionic mother, Julia, where, needing comfort in her loss, she enquires - with heart-breaking innocence – about what his last words might have been and where he might be buried. The boy was, of course, blasted to smithereens along with his co-gunner and their gun.

I’d imagined Julia (‘Mrs J E Williams’ as she signed herself every time except the once when she must have forgotten her formal manners), and I’d imagined her lost Edgar. We do have photographs, mostly from death notices in The Chronicle, Adelaide’s then-newspaper, of some of the young men whose stories we tell, but not many. And we don’t have any photographs of the family members who with such naive dignity sought news of their sons, brothers, brothers-in-law, husbands and fiancés. But in Adelaide there are only, say, two degrees of separation in any social connection and thus – by a series of serendipitous connections – we have now connected with the descendants of two of Edgar’s older sisters, both of whom are demon researchers and…we have some additional images. Below is a picture of Philip ‘Edgar’ Williams, and also a picture of his parents about ten years after his death. Julia must have been a very young mother because, with that dark hair, she couldn’t be much more than in her early fifties. Edgar is still just ‘young’, his face in that slouch hat is still soft and unformed, with its blush of red added to the lips of a sepia photograph, and you have no real idea of the man he might have become; but I have to say, Julia looks exactly how I imagined she would.

I’ve found the show immensely rewarding to work on. The material is so simple, but so sad. The sub-text speaks to the simplicity and modesty of the lives of Australians back then, and the curious innocence of all not directly concerned with the massive slaughter. There is an added piquancy for a South Australian audience in hearing the place names with which they are so familiar in such a different context.

And here are my newly discovered people.

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