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Review: Red Cross Letters shows the power of words

Theatre

At a time when we have been bombarded with World War I documentaries, novels, exhibitions and articles, one might wonder if there’s a need for a theatre production dealing with the same subject. The Red Cross Letters shows there is.

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Elegantly directed by Andy Packer, The Red Cross Letters is “verbatim theatre”, with its text constructed entirely from letters exchanged between the Red Cross Information Bureau and families of soldiers killed in action or missing, presumed dead.

And my goodness, what power there is in the sparse words.

Playwright Verity Laughton had the heartbreaking job of choosing, from a selection of the 8000 packets of letters held in the State Library of SA, those she felt best represented the sense of loss and anxiety experienced by the folks back home who were presented with a telegram informing them of the death of a loved one but given little or no information about the manner of their death. The Red Cross Information Bureau was there to help, seeking information from fellow soldiers, officers and medical staff that they then passed on to the bereaved.

The stories within the letters are told through beautifully understated readings by Matt Crook, Elizabeth Hay, Lizzy Falkland and Rory Walker.

Lizzy Falkland and other cast members convey the stories within the Red Cross Letters. Photo: Shane Reid

Lizzy Falkland and other cast members convey the stories within the Red Cross Letters. Photo: Shane Reid

Packer’s careful blocking of the actors and inspired use of wooden chairs gives each story a different visual composition that ensures the audience is not lost in the deluge of information.

Clever scoring and performance of music by Matthew Greggan adds depth, mimicking the clicking and sliding of a typewriter or providing background melancholic notes. And the backdrop of photographic images sliding behind palimpsests of photo frames and letters is the exceptional work of video designer Chris Petridis, who leaves fingerprints of pure gold on every production he touches.

The Red Cross Letters does not try to add anything new to our already over-burdened banks of knowledge about the horrors of World War I. Instead, the bold simplicity of text, set and direction combine to deliver a quietly profound piece of theatre.

The real beauty of this play is that it uses only the tight, dignified prose of the letters themselves to tell its story, leaving the audience to fill in the emotional gaps.

There’s something quite magical about listening to these voices speaking to us across the generations; it evokes a deep compassion for those who were left to carry such an enormous weight of sorrow. And given that millions of people are currently experiencing the horrors of war first-hand, it seems incredibly important that we are reminded what a heavy burden that is.

The Red Cross Letters is being presented by State Theatre Company at the the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until August 6. The production will then go on a regional tour to Noarlunga, Goolwa, Tanunda, Port Augusta, Woomera, Roxby Downs and Whyalla. There will also be a performance at Marion Cultural Centre on August 19.

Read InDaily’s interview with Verity Laughton here.

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