FRINGE 2019 – Kokoda – Star Theatres/Stirling Theatre – 4K

Alexander Ewers

Kokoda is a story, a legend, a myth engraved into the national psyche. It is a story with which every Australian is familiar, and yet which arguably few now truly know. Such is the manner of legends, history reduced to an exercise in the egotistical, and all too rarely made a reason to truly remember. Legends thrive off retelling: the art of exegetic embellishment and propagandist palatability. But truth? Truth survives in the telling, not the retelling.

Kokoda, the drama, is one such telling. Directed/produced by Peter Maddern, the scaffolding is nothing revolutionary: a sweeping chronology of the Kokoda campaign as perceived through the eyes of a participant. The mantle flung over this scaffold though, feels original. Maddern masterfully manipulates his ingredients to achieve an all-too elusive cohesion of the historical and the personal. It is a marriage done well in that it endures in the audience’s memory long after curtain-fall. There is an intensity and a realness that tempers even the most oft-told moments of this history. Wherein lies this element of the believable? Kokoda’s greatest strength is its respect for the ordinary, or more specifically, the ordinary in confrontation with the extraordinary. Protagonist, Private Powell, is utterly and reassuringly ordinary. His background is uninspiring, his reactions feel viscerally relatable, and his trajectory is satisfyingly “unheroic”. Powell provides the anchoring point of subjective experience through which the narrative of the historical can then be more evenly viewed. This is what makes for a true telling. Ordinary men enduring and overcoming amongst a nightmare of the extraordinary – this is the real spirit of Kokoda.

Every story worth the telling requires a teller befitting the task. Hence it is no small weight that actor, Jayden Marshall, shoulders in this solo performance. In addition to carrying the entirety of the theatrical burden, he is the audience’s medium to another world, an element of the personal that allows for comprehending the impersonal. His success on this front is all the more admirable considering he represents new talent to this show specifically, and also more generally in the broader thespian arena. His character’s journey is one of firsts, but firsts that are no cause for celebration: first bout of dysentery, firsthand experience of death, first gun fired, first kill. Marshall indwells his role convincingly, capturing the zeitgeist of war as it really was but rarely seems today: hand-to-hand instead of remote, passionate rather than apathetic, soul-contaminating versus clinically sterile. On a constructively critical note, delivery did tend to be a little stilted at times and rushed at others. The latter was more problematic, articulation suffering in these instances to the point of defying even the most concerted efforts at attentive listening. These moments usually occurred during the heat of passionate delivery but rarely detracted from overall enjoyment. However it is worth noting that not all audiences will be so familiar with the broader and more laconic Australian accent, and so a greater attention to pace and enunciation may be warranted in the event of expanding performances to broader audience environments.

It was impressive to see additional developments from a production perspective in comparison to this show’s premiere last season. Kokoda 2019 features a more streamlined audiovisual and stage design, the thespian performance bolstered by richer soundtrack and lighting effects. The net result is indeed more convincing, lending a new clarity and shaping a more distinct atmosphere for various environments in which the plot unfolds. But despite said advancements, Kokoda remains a refreshingly simple and direct theatre piece, needing no elaborate set or cumbersome adjuncts. It is about storytelling and true to this goal, it relies on the dual power of a script well written and well performed. These are the key factors that translate Kokoda from a mere tribute act to a presently relevant and resonant work. And it is these that allow Kokoda to successfully achieve its deeper success: a challenging of the self-protective and time-softened tropes we so readily believe about this great moment in our national history.

Kryztoff 4K

Leave a Reply