This is a play that displays its issues as blatantly as the medals the Anzacs pin to their chests, in this Australian look at the day of commemoration. Detail and attention to physical characteristics and domestic tics, which inject an element of comedy, energise this two hour parade, as well as some tender performances and explorations of juxtaposed masculinities.
At first rejected by Adelaide Festival in 1960 on the grounds it was an attack on Australian service men, The One Day of the Year is a hard long look at Anzac Day, an annual ‘celebration’ of service men and women in Australia who served or gave their lives in global wars, particularly WWI and WWII. Now the piece is considered a classic, charting the beginnings of the country’s move away from a national consciousness to a different kind of awareness, explored here in the framework of the Cooke family: working class hard drinking father Alf, tea-making but outspoken Dot, family friend and Gallipoli survivor Wacka. Anzac observing they are torn apart by the political notions of their photograph-taking son Hughie, whose North Shore upper class girlfriend Jan persuades him to turn an unwelcome lens on their domestic life.
The piece is kitchen sink in the Roots sense and plays along a similar ironic narrative- young son is liberated by the university education his family strove to give him and with the help of a modernising upper class girlfriend, turns against his parents and their strong sense of national identity. As a cultural import, it sits uneasily, though somewhere between, John Osborne’s maleism in Don’t Look Back in Anger and Wesker’s female spotlighting in Roots. Dot at times takes centre stage, but her’s is a different kind of apron strings attachment than we might see here in the UK: in the kitchen, Australian female aggression is as equal to the men’s (you see it in in the early works of Jane Campion) and Fiona Press gives as good as she gets as Dot, caught between a son she doesn’t understand and a husband who is deeply flawed.
Opposite her, Adele Querol plays a simpering Jan, who suffers from the kind of cruelty that often accompanies those who wish to modernise. But she is so poised, so gently outspoken, that it’s hard to see the chemistry between her and Hughie or that her rebelliousness goes beyond writing a few vicious words for the university rag. This is not bra-burning stuff. The men fulfil expectations and dance around each other like heavy weights at a boxing match: uncomprehending Mark Little as Alf, a more violent version of Beatie’s father in Roots, alternates between dumb blind love for his son and violent murderous stirrings. James William Wright – a play on James Dean’s unhappy Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause? – could have the energy that possesses his less educated Roots female counter part Beatie, but instead opts for a more emotionally confused take, betrayed by his girlfriend, alienated from his parents and with nowhere to put the coiled up misery welling up in him, except into his photography. The old man Wacka, played by Paul Haley, the real soldier who survived Gallipoli and lived to tell the tale ‘with nothing’, is the only character who can draw our sympathies -he doesn’t fight because he knows not to.
Sensitively exploring the cruel disapproval of Australia’s youth and their disgust at the culture of alcoholism that soaks up Anzac day, director Wayne Harrison at times opts for stylisation to over come the play’s simple didacticism. Catherine Morgan’s parade ground stage encourages the physical confrontations of the characters, which Wayne Harrison explores in almost cinematic moments, sometimes with actors looking on meditatively as others play their scenes, sometimes in direct confrontation. A sound track featuring Elvis Presley completes the sense of challenge and a disintegration of everything Alf and Dot hold dear.
Who is this play for? It does everything a kitchen sink drama does yet its conflicts feel as easily un-foldable as the furniture onstage. And whilst the play was seen as anti-nationalistic it is ironic that it feels exactly the opposite with its slightly compromising end message.