Breaker Morant

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Most Australians, if very few Brits, will already know the story of Breaker Morant, an Australian soldier serving with the British Army in the Boer War, court-martialled for his role the summary execution of several African prisoners. His treatment made him a folk hero; that and the romantic fact that he was not only a respected soldier and accomplished bushman, but also an intelligent and articulate poet.

In this revival of a 1978 play, later turned into an Aussie film, Adam Hills takes the title role, looking suitably dashing. For those who know him from his stand-up, Hills comes with a clean-cut image that’s initially incompatible with the thought of him being responsible for any brutality - but he gradually becomes more convincing until you do see him as the character, not the comic. And, after all, the Breaker Morant mythology does depend on our hero not being a cruel beast.

Fellow comic Brendon Burns plays his co-defendant and underling, Lieutenant Handcock, his existing brash, foul-mouthed stand-up persona more in keeping with the rufty-tufty squaddie you would expect to find in such a fighting unit, and he fills the role well.

There’s no shortages of comedians in the rest of the ensemble cast either, this being a production of co-director Phil Nichol’s company established to allow comics to explore their thespian side. From the antipodes alone Heath Franklin – the man behind Chopper at the Assembly Rooms - plays a third defendant; Sammy J plays prosecutor Major Thomas; and Rhys Darby is Trooper Botha, who provides some comic relief.

And much-needed it is, too; for this is for the most part a dense, dry piece, much as you might expect given the seriousness of the subject matter. The play is in the form of a courtyard drama, with testimonies and cross-examinations gradually piecing together the events that brought Morant to the dock.

It is soon apparent there is a culture clash between the rigid Edwardian ideals of gentlemen soldiers, and the casual colonials, drafted in to fight a new sort of commando warfare, behind enemy lines in the unforgiving veld. The kangaroo court seems an obvious stitch-up, condemning the Australians as scapegoats for behaviour endemic among the troops, and sanctioned, implicitly or explicitly, by the commander-in-chief, Lord Kitchener.

There are echoes of A Few Good Men in this – or, more correctly, vice-versa – as it involves those who declare war not wanting to be confronted with the cold realities of what it actually entails. As a historical account, however fictionalised, it is fascinating; though it does take the production a while to get over the static, detached nature of the storytelling and into the human drama. But by the end, everyone is willing for the best outcome for Morant and his loyal men.

Alistair Barrie makes the court’s bias very apparent as Richardson, the testy president of the hearing, a desk-bound career soldier uncomprehending of the true, ugly face of this new method of commando warfare He’s got a wonderfully disapproving scowl and nicely testy manner when it comes to slapping down the impudent defence lawyer.

Another couple of comics also pop up as witnesses; Alan Francis provides another slight comic turn as the arrogant medical Johnson; while Nick Wilty, himself a Falklands veteran, is a rather dim soldier.

But Breaker Morant is not just a case of playing ‘spot the comic’, but a genuinely informative story that never lets go of your attention. Whether it quite works as great theatre has a more ambiguous answer, but it’s certainly an engaging and fascinating 90 minutes of storytelling.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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