We are the Ghosts of the Future

 

… Penny  Edwell reviews a play in The Rocks.

Set in an 1858 sandstone warehouse in The Rocks, this interactive theatrical experience focuses on the inhabitants of a boarding house on the day in 1935 when beloved aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith was pronounced missing. The breaking news of Smithy’s disappearance is woven through the performance but isn’t its central focus. Rather, the event establishes an historical setting in which the drama of more domestic stories can take centre stage. The audience is free to wander through three levels of the old building, absorbing the atmosphere, delving into the secret lives of its inhabitants and bearing witness to their stories.

This suits such a historically atmospheric building, where sandstone and raw wooden beams provide an evocative setting. The floors creak; voices can be heard through the walls. Any added props are suitably restrained. Rather than attempt to recreate in minute detail a 1930s boarding house, the designers have brought together swathes of faded sheets, rolls of pianola music, piles of letters, old shoes and rains of paper planes, which all add to the exploratory, ephemeral experience.

Because each character inhabits a space in the building for their story to play out audience members may miss details or various segments. This does not detract from the experience, instead it adds an element of adventure. It also inspires post-show conversation. Two segments at the beginning and the end where audience members are all present brings any loose ends together and the actors are accomplished improvisers, incorporating audience movement and comments into their performance on the night. In fact all the actors are wonderful. In a poignant nod to the era the cast includes Leofric Kingsford-Smith, the grandnephew of Charles Kingsford-Smith and a seasoned theatre performer.

Creating an immersive experience set in the past comes with the added challenge of convincing an audience that they are stepping back in time when there are so many sensory reminders that they are still in the modern world (particularly in the centre of Sydney). High rises and cruise liners, bars, bands and mobile devices can all interfere with the magic no matter how accurate and faithfully detailed the surroundings may be.

This production ably overcomes this challenge by creating a space where the present and the past exists together via those age-old time travellers: ghosts. The character’s brief but powerful stories unfold like apparitions. It is as though you are walking through someone else’s memories: the bored washerwomen, the disappointed French war bride, the street urchin who idolises ‘Smithy’ and the secretly transvestite policeman, among other past lives. A scene featuring a backyard abortionist had me so riveted I watched it twice. Having the opportunity to move through these old, secret spaces and witness such personal stories confuses the temporal setting and makes you wonder — are they the ghosts or are we?

There is no doubt that The Rocks provides a visceral setting for We are the Ghosts of the Future, where ghost tours proliferate and historic buildings and dark laneways help fire up the imagination but for a story so connected to place there were voices missing: those of the original inhabitants of the Rocks. Including these would have been possible as is shown in Janet Cardiff’s City of Forking Paths which leads you through similar spaces overlaying Indigenous voices onto generations of other inhabitants of The Rocks.

The combination of a historic setting and a well-crafted performance is an evocative way of telling stories from the past. The production team ‘haunts’ The Rocks Discovery Museum in the evening, taking it over after closing and turning the rooms into performance spaces and then restoring them to normality, ready again for the morning visitors.

 

We are the Ghosts of the Future Tickets now only $15 for last days of the performance (27 and 28 November).

Writers: 7-ON: Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Noelle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning, Catherine Zimdahl. Director: Harriet Gillies Production Designer: Hugh O’Connor Composer: Phillip Johnston Lighting Designer: Alex Berlage Producer: Stephen Carnell (Blancmange Productions) Cast: Ali Aitken, Darcy Brown, Emily Eskell, Alicia Gonzalez, Sam Green, Flynn Henry, Robbie King, Leofric Kingsford-Smith, Michael McStay, Celine Oudin, Cody Ross, Eleni Schumacher, Eliza Scott, Donna Sizer, Pierce Wilcox. Musician: Laurence Rosier-Staines Creative Production & Stage Managers: Jadzea Allen, Samuel Lucas Allen Front of House: Courtney Farrow, Tina Brady, Stephen Carnell

 

Photo: courtesy of Phyllis Photography

 

Tracing Australian POWs in Italy

 

… introducing PHA NSW & ACT member, Katrina Kittel, whose interest in history was re-ignited when she started investigating her father’s wartime experiences.

 katrinaWhat made me pursue history?

Three decades ago I completed my first tertiary qualification, a degree in history. I changed direction with studies in other disciplines and entered a career within administrative, research assistant and librarian roles at The University of Newcastle.

In 2011, I fell back into the discipline of history following a nonchalant search for information regarding escaped prisoners-of-war in Italy during the Second World War. My father was one of those men, and as my son desired to wear his medals, I considered it time to find out more. Late night internet cruising took me to a website publication which included several photos from my father’s collection. Within days, I spoke to the site author, former prisoner-of-war Bill Rudd. He revealed that like my father, he had been taken prisoner at Alamein in July 1942, transported to Italian camps, and subsequently escaped across the Alps into neutral Switzerland. Bill Rudd OAM, a retired geologist, had become a researcher of significant contribution; his site www.anzacpow.com is preserved in Pandora.

We became regular correspondents. Bill flagged his interest in compiling a nominal roll of Australian prisoners-of-war in Italy, working from the British War Office prisoner-of-war lists of 1943. This project involved viewing the service files for over two thousand servicemen as well as other relevant primary or secondary sources as accessible. I jumped at the chance to assist a 95 year-old veteran who was a dedicated historical researcher. With only a small percentage of archival sources being digitally accessible, I made trips to Canberra and Melbourne to dig amongst the hard-copy collections. The project parameters were broadened beyond a nominal roll to include camp locations and movements, escapes, episodes of evasion, recapture and deaths. We noted details for those who were not identified as POW on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs online WWII Nominal Roll or listed on the Ballarat Prisoner of War memorial. Corrections were subsequently made.

The history had me hooked. I set about contacting as many veterans and families of veterans, as possible. The sharing of images, memoirs and documents, still continues. From what began as an interest in my father’s experience had extended to his POW cohort. Articles have been written for regional newspapers, Unit Associations, Military Historical Society of Australia’s Sabretache journal, and Department of Veterans’ Affairs ‘Our Mob serving country’ site.

What are your favourite historical sources or sites?

My enjoyment of reading first-hand accounts led to the idea of writing a book that weaved multiple voices of escaped prisoners of war in Italy between 1943 and 1945. I was nudged by one veteran who considered that the stories of POW in Italy were lesser known as compared to counterparts who were in captivity in Japanese or German hands. The Italy POW accounts revealed convergence of themes and divergence of witness detail, but overall an illustration of their unique context of captivity, escape and evasion. That book is nearing completion.

I look forward to visits to National Archives reading rooms in Canberra and Melbourne, with the anticipation of a tall pile of pre-requested files. There are the ‘quiet’ files, but also the records that reveal unexpected tangents to pursue, with information that is beyond that of the nominal roll project.

In my attempt to locate villages and refuges of respite, and the routes taken by escapers as outlined in their reports and accounts, I scrutinise Google maps and street view images that fit the route. My first exploration of Europe was via such two-dimensional field trips.

In 2013, a trip to Italy, Switzerland and Slovenia took me and my husband to some of these ‘historical sites’ where prison camps were situated and trails and passes had been trodden by escapers. We met elders who had encountered escaped prisoners. We spent time with an Italian-born son of a New Zealand escaper. In company with an interested Swiss Army archivist, we walked part of the Swiss-Italian Alps on trails used by wartime refugees and prisoner escapers. Red poppies were placed at Milan and Udine CWGC sites for the men who died in captivity or during evasion.

Who is your audience?

About two thousand Australians were prisoners-of-war interned in Italy. Not all returned servicemen spoke of their war service. While the veterans of the Second World War become fewer, their descendants remain interested in how their men experienced war.

Italian researcher colleagues continue to provide information and images as they learn more about Allied escapers who sheltered in regional villages and fought with partisan brigades.

In my current role as a librarian who works in public libraries, I see interest from general readers for new biographies and works of historical narrative related to war.  It is hoped that the escaper experiences as narrated within my book will illustrate the unique context for POW in Italy and add more to the literature regarding escape and evasion. And, at the time of typing, I contemplate the pursuit of a research higher degree.

Photo: Macugnaga, at the Italian-Swiss border