Bob Herbert's quintessential Australian work, No Names…No Pack Drill, takes us to wartime Sydney in the summer of 1942 exploring notions of loyalty, honour and love.
The play is deeply Australian. Authenticity seems a given considering it sprang from the creative mind of a playwright born in Yea. It has been described as a play that speaks to, as well as questions our notion of, the Australian psyche. Director Mark Wilson expands on this notion: "For me that means that it’s asking questions about where we come from, seeking to work out who we are, what makes us tick, what are the formative events?" says Wilson. "It fits in with The One Day of the Year, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as big, well made plays that depict clear social problems, situations, based in reality, and which ask big questions. Also by having American characters – the soldiers on leave in Sydney – it puts the Australians into a context against or with which they try to define themselves. So the characters are trying to define themselves as Australian as much as the play is asking the questions of the audience."
Described as a romantic drama based on (partly at least) an incident involving Herbert's sister and an American soldier at Kings Cross, No Names..No Pack Drill has not been performed in Australia since NIDA's production in 2006. Written in the 1970's, the play may be a tad dated but, according to Wilson, it still counts in terms of its significance. " I feel like this play is about my grandparents – not in terms of story but spirit: I like the idea that my grandparents were once in their twenties, dealing with the same things that I’m dealing with, but with the pressure of a world war on top of everything else. On a social level it’s about duty and honour, what motivates and controls our behaviour. It asks, what is our code of honour – do we have one? What are the structures we respect in our world today? And if we respect nothing, value nothing, how do we create meaningful lives?"
Wilson is a recent graduate of VCA Directing course and a previous student of Shakespeare's Globe in London and is one of the most sought-after young directors in Melbourne at the moment. His choice of play may baffle some experimentalists who feel the play too traditional but for Wilson it's all about the quality of the work. "The first thing about it that struck me was its form – it is such a well made play," he explains. "Often that’s a turn off, but this is so damn well put together. After doing so much non-text-based stuff this year, I was looking for a piece that was a play. It appealed to me thematically in terms of its interest in masculinity and the boxes that were are all meant to fit into, but often don’t."
The play is basically about a US marine who goes AWOL and the Australian girl who takes pity on him. Yes, already a perhaps predictable and contrived ending may manifest in some minds however, according to Wilson, the play is much deeper than that "This thought about honour and duty has been really big. And love. What we’ll do, what we’ll sacrifice for love. It’s a crazy thing love, but without we’re screwed, eh?"
The play has some very specific demands due to its genesis as well as the historical framework and characters within its plot. "The most important thing has been finding the pitch at which to play it," explains Wilson. "It’s a play from the late 70s aping the style of an earlier era. The thing was to invigorate this without mocking it, to activate the life inside it and not slide into shallowness or it all being too affected. It’s also been a great challenge to rein myself in on this project. This isn’t a piece I’m creating, I’m not an auteur here, the role is an interpretive one. Early on I had to contain my desires to shift the piece, to take it somewhere it didn’t want to go. Ultimately it was about respecting the text in a direct way, playing within the form, bringing out my work inside it."
Interestingly, Herbert also served in the AIF and RAAF during WWII giving the play a well rounded degree of authenticity but ultimately it is a play that takes us back to, what some may consider, a better, less complicated time. Wilson believes that it is a play that will make people laugh and feel. "It’s a charming, funny, honest, moving play with wonderful characters and great design in a great venue," he says. "It’s a chance to see an Australian classic on stage, to go back to a time and live with some people of a different era. It’s beautifully crafted and features some knockout performances."
No Names…No Pack Drill plays till June 24
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