Chunuk Bair Centenary: Once on Chunuk Bair

Today, 8 August, marks the 100 year anniversary of the Battle for Chunuk Bair. The battle, which took place from 6-10 August 1915, was New Zealand’s most significant action in the Gallipoli Campaign.

To help commemorate the anniversary of the battle we are taking the opportunity to look back on the premier performance of Maurice Shadbolt's only published play, Once on Chunuk Bair. The first performance of Once on Chunuk Bair was given at Mercury Theatre, Auckland, on 23 April 1982. The play was directed by Ian Mune and designed by Richard Jeziorny.

Two manuscript collections held in Sir George Grey Special Collections are useful in looking back to this initial staging of the play. The first is the Roy Billing papers, who was the lead actor in the 1982 performance. This collection includes draft scripts of the play as it was performed at the Mercury Theatre, complete with Billing's annotations as well as an extract from his unpublished memoir, photographs, and an oral history interview with Roy Billing about the staging of Once on Chunuk Bair.

The photographs were taken by Billing during the shooting of promotional video, directed by Ian Mune, for the TVNZ news at the earthworks for the making of the new motorway at Albany.

The Mercury Theatre records is the other collection of interest as this includes photographs of the production itself. 

In an interview in Illusions (no.11:1989) with Phillip Mann, Shadbolt describes the genesis of the play:

"A visit to the Gallipoli peninsula, and a side trip to Troy, in 1977 with my wife, Bridget Armstrong. The day after we walked the battlefield I looked across at the peninsula from a little classical theatre excavated in Troy... For some reason I was forcibly struck by the fact that nothing in this nation's culture -no significant poem or painting, novel or play - enshrines the Gallipoli experience.

Anyway, after the experience of climbing Chunuk Bair, I began thinking about a play. For a time I dismissed it. I couldn't see how you could possibly stage the story of Chunuk Bair. A year or two later, in England, Bridget and I went to Ayckbourn's Sisterly feelings at the National. As we walked into the auditorium, we saw this bloody great hill. I said, "There is Chunuk Bair. I have to have a hill to make the play work.

At the end of 1980 we came back to New Zealand and one of the first things we did was go to Greg McGee's Foreskin's lament at Corporate. I found that a very powerful experience indeed. It was a very powerful thing to see raw New Zealand staged, with layer after layer of sentimental illusion ripped away. It was the first time this had happened to me in a New Zealand theatre.
A month or so later I saw Ian Mune's production of Moby Dick at the Mercury and that was when I saw that the theatre could convincingly contain a large event such as a battle with a white whale, maybe even a war.

Afterwards we had a few drinks with Ian. I explained why [Moby Dick] had so excited me; and talked of New Zealand's day on Chunuk Bair. Ian's eyes lit up and suddenly he was writing out a contract on a table napkin. Surely the most original contract in New Zealand theatre history... That would have been early February 1981.

By April 24, the eve of Anzac Day significantly enough, I was in sight of a draft. That day there was to be a launching of Michael King's book New Zealanders at war, some three hundred miles south, at the Waiouru Military Museum. With the draft finished...we drove down to Waiouru and I confided in Michael, the moment I saw him, the fact that I had just roughed out a play derived from the New Zealand experience of Gallipoli.

As a confidence, it didn't last long. Minutes later a surprisingly shy and soft-spoken young army major arrived alongside me and said, "I hear you've just written a play about Chunuk Bair." "Yes," I agreed cautiously. "I'm trying to write about Gallipoli too," he confessed. We began talking and he proved a marvellous mine of information and a fellow spirit. His name was Chris Pugsley. That meeting set off a remarkable chain of events, one of which was the writing of his book, which at that stage he was not confident about. One of the things I'm most proud of is the note in the foreword of his book Gallipoli, the New Zealand story (1984): "Maurice Shadbolt is the catalyst who made it [this book] happen and gave me the confidence to complete the task (pp.14-15)."

Chris Pugsley talks about this chance meeting at NZ On Screen, where you can watch the full documentary of Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story. Shadbolt also wrote the script for the award-winning documentary.

Ian Mune, the plays director, describes the first read-through of the script in his autobiography:
"We begin the read. Yes, the actors struggle with the dense and long-winded prose, but when we come to the end there is a heavy silence. And then a strange thing happens, something I have never experienced before. I'm not sure who, if anyone, starts the move, or even exactly why we are doing it. We all stand. It has something to do with a sense of oneness. These are our forebears; their heroism and struggle, their suffering, their achievement is part of us, of what made us (p.225)."

Shadbolt mythologises the battle as the beginning of an independent New Zealand nationhood. The Oxford companion to New Zealand literature says that, "the play treats the battle as a moment of historical definition when a colonial country realised its postcolonial identity (p.488)."

This theme is further emphasized in Phillip Mann's essay on the dramaturgy of Once on Chunuk Bair in Ending the silences: critical essays on the work of Maurice Shadbolt: 

"Shadbolt has testified to the emotional impact upon him of actually standing on the hill where the soldiers fought and died and there can be no doubting his sympathy for the suffering. But if all we had was sympathy we would have a very different play. Allied to the sympathy there is a driving will to assert New Zealand: to affirm its values and establish its mana (p.135)."

For more on cultural nationalist interpretations of Gallipoli, including Once on Chunuk Bair, see this article by James Bennett in the Journal of New Zealand Studies (2012: n.13:p.46-61). And for a fuller account of the premier performance at Mercury Theatre listen to Dr Lucy Treep's lecture which preceded a performance last year at the Maidment Theatre: Once on Chunuk Bair: cultural artefact of the 1980s?

Once on Chunuk Bair was successfully staged again last year by the Auckland Theatre Company, and is currently being performed throughout the country as part of the the World War One commemorations.

Lest we forget.

Further reading:

Author: Andrew Henry