Adelaide Fringe 2019
Peter Maddern’s well crafted script taking us through the hell of the Kokoda campaign in Papua New Guinea returns with a new young recruit centre stage. What follows is a dedicated and impassioned retelling of an important slice of Australian history.
The World War 2 Kokoda story is a remarkable tale of adaptability, endurance, bravery and incompetent leadership. Peter Maddern’s one man play, here performed by Jayden Marshall, is tightly woven and ultimately deeply affecting. Maddern’s excellently crafted script gives us insight into the experience through the eyes of a young soldier but also expertly weaves in the story of this remarkable and rare defeat of the Japanese at this stage of the war without ever being expositional.
The play is based on the experiences of what were called ‘chocolate soldiers’ – inexperienced, under-equipped men who were seen to ‘melt’ under the harsh conditions – but who nevertheless, after repeated reverses, torturous retreats, disease and poor decision making, finally managed one of the great defences of the war. But as the final section of the play makes clear, this was only achieved at extraordinary cost and waste of life on both sides.
Backed by superb lighting and sound, the audience are transported to the tropical jungle of Papua New Guinea, where we meet a new recruit. We learn of the lack of preparation, equipment and training as told through the frustration of a confused young soldier at the front line struggling to comprehend the mess of battle. But it is clear that the defence of Port Moresby was essential to avoid Japanese domination of the Pacific. Furthermore, as we hear about the bombing of Darwin, it is clear that had Moresby fallen, it would have given the enemy the perfect platform to launch attacks on Australian soil. A hard-fought battle up the Kokoda trail follows, mostly in disorganised retreat, as through dense jungle and over mountains everything had to be carried on foot, no transportation or even stretchers, wounded men having to make their own way or be left behind. This goes for the enemy too, and one of the most moving scenes in the play is effected when our lad is ordered to put a young Japanese solider “out of his misery”, achieving an emotional human insight as the two young innocents caught in the middle of this mayhem lock eyes down the barrel of a gun.
War is hell. And the message is loud and clear. As is a topical section where Maddern’s play pays tribute to the local population, who having suffered badly at the hands of the Japanese, were hugely supportive of their Australian allies as much as they were ruthless to the Japanese. This heart-felt tribute speaks of a generic respect and appreciation of other races and cultures which manages a welcome contemporary message as much as an insight into the past.
As our conduit to history, Private Powell’s responses to the mess and violence around him feel occasionally forced but always truthful. Actor Jayden Marshall is fortunate to have such well crafted material to work with and such excellent technical support. His movement is restless and his delivery is rapid fire, so one has to concentrate to keep up with him, but what this young actor performing his first ever solo show lacks in technical expertise and experience he makes up for with commitment and energy. This may feel like a raw performance but the drive of the piece and direct approach keep the narrative flowing and the use of lighting, haze and constant soundtrack support the central performance in style.