Hannie Rayson’s “The Glass Soldier,” which covers the lasting impact of war on one man, his family and friends, began as a film script and perhaps should never have veered from the bigscreen course. In its Melbourne Theater Company premiere, this cross-generational saga’s transfer to the stage is often unwieldy in scope and uneven in emotional effect. First-act action lurches between the trenches of the Somme and Mother England, both terrains steeped in conventional incidents that spell out “war-is-hell,” and populated by puppets representing multi-cultural Aussie soldiers and comic-strip, upper-class Brits.
Scenes, which feel closer to an episodic TV miniseries than genuinely epic theater, depict the hypocrisy and horrors of the battlefield, as well as the blinding of the young idealistic hero, artist and field ambulance man, Nelson Ferguson (Jay Bowen). Characters, however, fail to connect with each other and, as a consequence, the audience rarely feels moved.
Not even some catchy period ditties (right out of “Oh! What a Lovely War”) can lift the routine bathos, which, post-intermission, gives way to the Great Depression and World War II, continuing on through local involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
The sight-impaired Ferguson is, in later scenes, played potently by a passionately focused Robert Menzies, while Mrs. “Maddy” Ferguson is granted depth and dignity by the, as usual, splendidly committed Kerry Armstrong (“Lantana”). Likewise, both Steve Bisley’s internally tortured Wolfie and Julie Nihill’s long-suffering Lil offer memorable moments.
But, hammy dialogue and a story arc that seldom strays far from the melodramatic and predictable weigh down the drama. One wonderfully rare exception is a scene at a stained glass window workshop, where sharp, lively interactions amuse and engage in a manner possibly more closely related to the playwright’s own social world.
Otherwise, neither Dale Ferguson’s imposing, revolve-based set design nor Simon Phillips’ slickly professional direction can lend sufficient thrust to the diffuse strands of a soggy, sagging study of so many big issues that the small matter of dramatic plausibility gets lost in the play’s larger-than-life wash.