This article is from 2007.
After the success of Talk Radio, the Comedians Theatre Company returns to the Fringe with a hard-hitting courtroom drama. But as the Australian leads tell Steve Cramer, the play is not without its bawdy elements
I don’t spot Brendon Burns at first. The waxed handlebar moustache accompanied by Victorian sideburns might render anyone unrecognisable. The sun is streaming through a large window onto Burns, who is seated in a private club in London’s Soho. He is making some arguably unhelpful suggestions about Adam Hills’ upcoming Edinburgh stand-up show, with terms of reference ranging from the scatological to the onanistic, and, as I sit down with the pair and director Phil Nichol, he doesn’t break his stride.
At this point Hills leaps up and says, ‘Cop a look at this!’ Hills pulls up his shirt, undoes his belt and the top button of his trousers and begins to pull them down. Luckily, he’s only demonstrating a large, freshly stitched scar on his abdomen. He’s just off the plane from Sydney after being diagnosed with a particularly dangerous case of appendicitis, and swiftly operated on just a short time before. Hills and Burns are appearing in Breaker Morant, Kenneth Ross’ famous Australian play of the 70s, which tells a true story as well-known in Australia as it is obscure here.
In the last years of the Second Boer War, a secret order was issued to British forces and their colonial allies which urged that Boer prisoners should be shot. When a British newspaper uncovered this scandal, the army sought scapegoats, preferably non-British ones, in order to make these atrocities seem the exception rather than the rule. Almost immediately, arrest warrants were issued for three Australian members of the Bush Veldt Carbineer: Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and his fellow lieutenants, Handcock and Witton. A kangaroo court martial was assembled and an extremely youthful army attorney, handling his first case, was appointed to the accused men’s defence. Yet the young man put up a legal battle that will live long in history.
In 1980 Bruce Beresford made a film of the play, starring Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson which launched both Beresford and Brown into Hollywood careers. Having already achieved a measure of success with their version of the Henry Fonda classic 12 Angry Men at the Fringe a couple of years back, the Comedians Theatre Company could be in line for another hit, casting Hills as Morant and Burns as Handcock.
As I sit between the saturnine, taboo-breaking, rottweiler energy of Burns, the friendly, almost scarily open collie-like Hills, and the quietly watchful labrador Nichol, what emerges is that the play doesn’t whitewash the characters of the accused men. ‘They’re not perfect,’ Nichol explains. ‘It’s a very Australian trait to celebrate someone’s bad points; it makes them more human, but there’s a sense of honour in these men, which is also very strong in Australians. And they still aren’t guilty of what they’re accused of; in many ways they’re just lads and there’s a lot of humour in the play.’
Asked what his mate was doing when the crimes were committed, Breaker is reluctant to betray his mate Handcock, a married man, who has been seeing Boer women. Adam Hills sees this as the ‘Aussie sense of honour. It’s about mates, not quite thinking of the cheated woman at home,’ he says. Yet, this encapsulates the essence of the characters. There might be a rowdy, misogynistic and over-the-top element to them, but they are very likeable.
Hills explains the real Morant’s back story. ‘He was born in England to a pretty well-off family, but he rebelled against his father, ran up gambling debts, then went to Australia for a fresh start. But then he realised, “Hey, I’m still me, I’m rioting and drinking, so I’ll join the army to get a bit of discipline.” The irony of his going on trial was that he was obeying orders.’ The contemporary note under the text is not lost on Nichol: ‘Where it’s relevant today is that we’re still fighting an insurgent guerrilla war. And still we’re holding young 20-year-old men accountable, and we’re expecting them to be superhuman, when they’re barely men. It throws up all those questions; it doesn’t come up with definite answers, but it asks very modern questions and that’s what struck me about reading the text for the first time. Should these men have been held accountable, or should it have been Lord Kitchener and the authorities who set this up? We might ask the very same questions today.’
The thorny side of the play is its alleged anti-Britishness. The reason why attitudes to Churchill are so different in Australia can be traced back to his planning of Gallipoli, yet the case of ‘Breaker’ Morant makes nearly as hostile a case against the British Empire as that ill-fated campaign a decade-and-a-half after the Morant case. ‘Australia has, in a way, defined itself and its relationship with Britain through war,’ says Hills. ‘In Australia, it’s always going to be Gallipoli; the British sent us to the wrong beach and screwed us over. Whether or not that actually happened, Australians are going to believe that.’
Burns, his tone becoming more serious, addresses a deep historical wound: ‘Australia is angrier with Britain than we were with the enemy. With Gallipoli the Turks weren’t the antagonists, the British were. Vietnam was the first war we went to without the British, but even that was for someone else.’ Yet there are parallels among a people used as hard men and shock troops to fight the empire’s wars that perhaps these two Australian men haven’t considered. Scots might find a glimpse of their own history and an exploitative relationship in this play.
Breaker Morant, UdderBELLY’s Pasture, Bristo Square, 0870 745 3083, 4–27 Aug (not 14), 1.40pm, £12.50–£14.50 (£10–£13). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £7.