Riverside Theatres is about to host the world premiere of an exciting new play, written by internationally-acclaimed playwright, Justin Fleming, and directed by former Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, Wayne Harrison.
Shellshock will have its first airing in front of an audience this weekend. On top of the high calibre creative team, a stellar cast has been assembled for the show, which includes Sandy Gore, Yalin Ozucelik, Jack Finsterer, Francesca Savige and Benson Jack Anthony.
The piece tells the unusual love story of an Australian teenager and his tortoise friend, Herman, the oldest living survivor of the Gallipoli campaign.
Theatre People had the fortune of sitting down recently with director, Wayne Harrison, to discuss the production and the origins of the story. “I was reading a newspaper and I saw a story about the oldest living survivor of the Gallipoli campaign, and it happened to be about a tortoise,” Harrison says. “Justin was taken with the newspaper clipping, and said he would write a play about a tortoise who was a survivor of Gallipoli, and he’s done just that.”
But while the story of the tortoise is at the core of this piece, Shellshock tells other stories too. “On another level, it’s about the relationship between a father and a son. Their family relationship has been affected by a personal tragedy,” Harrison explains. “The story of the history of the tortoise and Gallipoli, and the family who’ve been the custodian of the tortoise for a 100 years…then reflects on the relationship between the father and the son and how they overcome their personal loss.
“So it works on a number of levels and, hopefully, the meshing of those levels will be what gives the audience their entertainment value…It’s quite a moving and funny telling of the story. Hopefully, they won’t just be entertained. They’ll find some affirmation in it.”
Intriguingly, Shellshock also features the use of shadow puppets. Harrison says their incorporation into the piece facilitates the telling of the story from both an ANZAC and a Turkish perspective. “We’ve had Sue Wallace working with us, investigating how we can tell stories with these Turkish shadow puppets.”
Harrison has enjoyed a long and accomplished career in theatre as a director, writer, producer and performer. Not only was he once at the helm of the STC and racked up a slew of theatre directing credits, but he also directed the 2006 Commonwealth Games closing ceremony, and the Spiegelworld circus cabaret sensation, Absinthe, which has this year had its Australian debut. He tells Theatre People that it’s the opportunity to make new work that is his passion. “Where I really get my thrills is starting with a basic idea, like the clipping from the newspaper about the tortoise, and working with a playwright on creating something new.
“The hardest thing we do in the theatre is create new work because you can’t read the reviews from the Broadway production and you can’t go to school on what happened when the play was done in 1922…You have to make it up as you go along. You have to not only find answers to questions, but you have to make sure that you’re asking the right questions in the first place because they’ve never been asked before.
“It’s a thrilling experience, and I love the dramaturgy of working with the playwright on creating from the word ‘go’. And when the actors come into the dramaturgy process, it becomes even more exciting.”
Harrison has a long history with the venue that will host this world premiere, the Riverside Theatre complex. “I was there when it opened in 1988,” he says. “I did one of the first productions there, which was a production of Othello in the courtyard. I’ve done a lot of work there over the years.”
Even longer than his history with Riverside Theatres is Harrison’s history of collaboration with playwright, Justin Fleming. “I’ve worked with Justin for many years. We [recently] celebrated our 30th anniversary of working with each other,” he says. “Justin’s a terrific playwright.”
Harrison is looking forward to the piece finally going in front of an audience, which he describes as the next stage in the show’s evolution. “It’s not really until the audience joins you…that you know whether it works or not. They tell you a lot, and you make changes according to what the responses are.”
And while there may be some evolution of Shellshock still to occur, Harrison is confident this weekend’s audiences are in for a memorable experience. “It will be an entertaining, moving, enjoyable, stimulating night in the theatre.”
Dates: Fri 31 July & Sat 1 Aug 7:30pm; Mon 3 Aug & Tues 2 Aug 11am; Wed 5 Aug 11am & 7:30pm; Thurs 6 Aug & Fri 7 Aug 7:30pm; Sat 8 Aug 2:15pm & 7:30pm
Tickets: Adult $49 / Conc $44 / 30 and Under $35 / School Students $23
Bookings: From the Box Office (02) 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au
Venue: Riverside Theatres – Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta