For my 100th article (how did that happen already?!), it seemed fitting to feature a play about an event from 100 years ago, namely the World War I battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Shane Palmer has written his first play which is debuting at the Melbourne Fringe festival this month. (For info about other shows at the Melbourne Fringe, look here).
Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux is the play that you’ve written which you’ll perform at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Why did you write this play?
I learned about the battle itself around 2 years ago, and became fascinated with its story. It’s a small battle in the whole scale of WW1, but incredibly pivotal in the outcome of the entire war. Yet so few people have ever heard about it, and I felt it was a story crying out to be told.
It’s said to be the story of George Stevenson and the 15th Brigade AIF in France in WW1. What’s the significance of George and his Brigade?
While researching and writing the script, I came across a huge trove of first-hand stories, anecdotes and accounts from actual infantrymen on the ground in France during WW1. I wanted “Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux” to do justice to their memories, and share their experiences; without taking too much artistic license and shifting real veterans into different parts of the war.
So George is really a composite character, with some shared real experiences from different Brigades of the AIF in WW1, and some fictionalised moments to fit the narrative.
However, all of the places we visit in the play are where the 15th Brigade actually travelled to and fought in during the war, I really aimed to remain as historically faithful with the Brigade as possible.
Their story is incredible; they landed at Gallipoli in 1915, then travelled across the Mediterranean and into France in late 1916, and played a crucial role in the retaking of Villers-Bretonneux and changing the course of the war.
What’s the significance of Villers-Bretonneux?
Villers-Bretonneux is a small village a few miles east of the city of Amiens, the northern headquarters where the French & Allied forces met. The Germans mounted a huge push in 1918 to try to take Amiens, which would have caused a capitulation for the Allies on the Western Front. Villers-Bretonneux was the final piece in the way of the Germans, and if it fell permanently, Amiens would have fallen soon after.
The Australians retaking this village essentially caused the German army to stub its toe in 1918, which ultimately led to it falling over and reversing the entire fortune of WW1.
Villers-Bretonneux was a key moment in building the fantastic relationship between Australia and France, and we explore some of the early beginnings between the two nations in the play.
Did you study history or have a particular interest in war history?
Growing up I was constantly fascinated by and keenly fed as much history as possible. A dream of mine is to be able to travel through time, so I guess a huge motivation for becoming an actor was through telling stories, and it being the closest access to travel to as many different periods as possible.
I’ve always been interested in military history, as I think it contains some of the biggest shifts in society; when entire cultures are strained to their limits. I’m fascinated to tell the stories of the people on the ground, the everyday folk stuck in the most horrendous of environments, and what kind of strength of human spirit lifts them through it all and towards survival.
Tell us a bit about your previous acting roles and how you started acting
I started acting in my grade 6 graduation play, auditioning for the role of Snow White as a dare. Ended up getting cast, and confusing the audience when they discovered the girl in the bob wig and long red dress was actually a boy!
Following that I started doing more theatre at La Trobe University, including A Clockwork Orange, which we toured to Brisbane for the Festival of Australian Student Theatre.
More recently I played the villain in Ruby Tuesday, a short film that screened at the St Kilda Film Festival and Arkansas Good Food and Wine Festival.
I’ve also been in a TAC commercial, but I’m not entirely sure when that airs…
This year is the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI and of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux. How relevant is that 100 years on?
I think it’s still a hugely important thing to look back on, and question why we fight, and the real meaning behind ‘Lest We Forget’. I’ve had a lot of issues with the way a lot of the 100 year anniversary of WW1 has been commemorated – especially with the number of companies or sporting bodies trying to shamelessly make a profit from it.
While writing the play, I felt it was hugely important to explore the idea of commemoration and remembrance of the sacrifice, and why these young men volunteered to go and fight on the other side of the world.
Given the play is about war, how violent is it?
Compared to a lot of Hollywood war films, Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux is pretty tame. There is a bit of blood and mud, and the audience might hear a few explosions; but our real focus is on the psychological effect of war.
Are the Fringe shows the first performances of this piece?
The 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival is the first performance of this piece of new writing, and we’re thrilled to be able to put it on at the Courthouse Theatre in North Melbourne.
Are you planning to tour it?
I certainly hope to! My Director Robert Johnson has already suggested we attempt to take it to some regional parts of Victoria, and I’d love to play in Adelaide, Sydney and certainly have a look into going all the way to Edinburgh next year, for their mighty Fringe Festival.
Why should people come to see this show?
Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux is for history nuts, people with no knowledge of WW1, people who love theatre and performance, and people who love a good story.