The One Day of the Year is a dinky-di Australian account of Anzac Day and the differing ways in which it can be interpreted - what it means, what it represents and how it is constructed by those who served and those who simply observe it. Though written in 1958 by Alan Seymour, who passed away on the morning of Monday March 23 this year, the play resonates with contemporary society's views, values and beliefs regarding one of Australia's defining historical moments.
Don't let the above poster image fool you into making any assumptions regarding what The One Day of the Year will be about. The image of a bugler standing opposite a man drinking from a bottle of beer as the sun rises instantly sparks the thought of young drunks vs. former soldiers on this most sacred of days within the Australian historical narrative. However, there is much more to this play than a conflict as simple as that. The play delves boldly into the Australian psyche to find and illustrate what Anzac Day means to each generation.
The first half of the play establishes the context and historical background of Australia's involvement in the First and Second World Wars, as well as expressing perfectly the sentiments, emotions and views of those who came back. Each war (and their respective generations) are represented in the characters of Alf Cook (Peter Hardy) and his old mate Wacka Dawson (Don Bridges), who is himself an Anzac. Alf is a fair dinkum Australian, stubbornly resisting that changes that took place in the years following the end of the Second World War.
Feeling hard done by because of the Land of Opportunity's apparent disregard for him, Alf represents the men who can't let go, reminiscing about his glorious war days to anyone who will listen. Alf sees his involvement in the war, and that of the men before him - including his own father who was there at Gallipoli - as a great sacrifice for future generations. Those future generations are represented by his son Hughie (Luke Clayson), a university student.
Surrounded by the big ideas and new ways of thinking, influenced by the strong-headed and tempestuous Jan Castle (Olivia Solomons), Hughie has become highly critical of the Anzac Day tradition. Jan sees Anzac Day as repressive and misleading, wrongly glorifying an unorganised and messy waste of lives. Hughie and Jan also heavily critique the way Anzac Day is celebrated - as an all-out, sloppy "booze-up." It was likely the way of thinking represented by Jan and Hughie that resulted in the play's author receiving death threats when it was first performed in 1960. Some of the ideas in this play would have been branded nothing short of heresy, with some Australians still branding it as heresy today.
But The One Day of the Year offers no easy answers; it does not ask us to side with only one set of ideas. It is a complex work that also examines the divide between the working class Cooks and Jan's upper class background, breaking down the common rhetoric that paints Australia as a classless society. The young and old dichotomy is not told in black-and-white as the arguments that we see in the play are filled with different layers of conflict and understanding. The play does not offer answers because it wants the audience to find the answers themselves: What does Anzac Day represent? What should it represent?
The cast is uniformly excellent in representing the challenging notions at play. Even when they are not speaking, they are reacting, perfectly representing the conflict of each character. Their performances create an intensely immersive -and surprisingly funny, in an extremely natural way - play that feels much shorter than its two hour running time. While it does start to run out of steam a little bit toward the end, following its climax, for the most part the play was thoroughly engaging and entertaining.
As one character says in the play, "Men went to Gallipoli as nobodies and came back as heroes." With the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign coming up next month, the revival of The One Day of the Year feels vital. It is a play that has aged beautifully, especially given that even now we are examining the legacy that is held so near to the nation's collective heart. This remarkable, thought-provoking piece of theatre is only on a short run at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre until March 28, so get in and see it before it's too late.