I didn’t actually end up seeing “The Unknown Soldier”, but it seemed to be a beautifully put together play.
The interview was originally posted on Arts on the AU.
On the battlefields of WWI, a 16-year-old soldier fights for King and Country; in the 21st century, a 13-year-old boy questions how a soldier can simply disappear. In this new play The Unknown Soldier writer Sandra Eldridge explores the themes of this Unknown Soldier – who he is and what does he represent to young Australians today?
The AU caught up with Sandra to discuss the new work (her first as a playwright!) and how it is brought to life on the stage of Darling Harbour’s Monkey Baa Theatre.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came into the idea for writing The Unknown Solider?
I’m one of the creative directors at Monkey Baa, an actor, director and writer with the company, which we formed way back in the 90s. Almost 18 years ago! The idea for The Unknown Soldier came from a number of sources, touring around the country and wondering what a young person makes of the War Memorials that are prominent in each town. From a dinner conversation, my brother told me about when he and his friends all realised that they had a Great Grandfather that died on The Somme and [had] characters from that time talking to me once I had spent a few years researching the period and the War. I also wanted to make a piece of theatre around the time of the centenary of WWI.
The play was conceived through your travels around Australia, from war archives, diary extracts, books and poetry. What originally prompted this trip?
I’m very lucky to travel a lot with my work. Touring Monkey Baa Theatre productions as an actor or director, or visiting schools around the country doing workshops. It’s allowed me to journey to so many beautiful and strange, wonderful places.
How does one attempt to bring the battlefields of WWI to life on stage?
We are very fortunate with the play to have a terrific director Matt Edgerton at the helm and a fantastic design team, Anna Gardiner (Set and Costume) Matt Cox (Lights) and David Stalley (Sound) and through research, creativity and sheer brilliant stage craft they are going to make it happen. But the most important ingredient is the audience’s imagination. That’s what makes theatre so unique and special.
The Unknown Soldier is the Monkey Baa’s first entirely new work. How does this compare to approaching adapted productions?
It’s been a different journey for Monkey Baa in the process of creating this script. When we adapt a piece, we have the framework of the story laid out for us. Almost like a map that we choose to stay on or veer from, depending on the dramatic choices that we make with the work. Also, we adapt a piece for the stage collaboratively with Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and myself working very closely together. This was a play that emerged from my research and imaginings, so at times, it was a lonely process for me. But I liaised with the others and Tim was dramaturge on the play, which was great. We had (as with our adaptation process) a creative development on the script, so it got bashed about a fair bit with the actor, director and dramaturge all working closely with the writer (me) to tighten the script.
Since moving to Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, we have been expanding our repertoire and our process in creating theatre for young people and this journey was a part of our expansion into other forms of theatre making. Ultimately though, as with our adaptations, we have a script at the end of the day that we take into rehearsal and hopefully create a engaging, entertaining theatre experience.
The play is also a first for you as a playwright. How does the experience of being both writer and actor compare to simply being an actor in a production?
Yes, it’s been an enormous learning curve and I had to take the writers hat off at the beginning of rehearsal. We joke in rehearsal that the writer is in bed working through the Harry Potter series, so can’t be disturbed. But if there is a tweak here and there, I’ve put the hat back on. The interesting aspect is seeing links that I didn’t know I had written. An actor comes to a script from such a different angle and that has been fascinating to discover. Lines have been hard to get in though as I have 12 drafts in my head!
To you, what does the Unknown Solider represent to young Australians today?
I hoping it offers questions about war, about fighting about being a soldier, about honor, duty and sacrifice. Seeing the links between WWI and the war Australia is currently in today. And I hope that the War Memorials become more than granite, but speak.
And finally, if there was one thing your audience could take away from this production, what do you hope it would be?
That the past isn’t a foreign place, it is always with us.