Tag Archives: WWII

205: The Shoe-Horn Sonata

4 Jun

John Misto’s award-winning play The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a moving tribute to the Australian nurses held prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War. In 1942, 65 Australian Army nurses were among the hundreds of thousands of women and children taken prisoner in Singapore. Most of them died over the next three years, but a few survived the horrendous POW camps and this is their story.

play and woman

Misto did extensive research and vowed to tell the hidden story, the one that governments preferred to forget. Unlike the fallen soldiers from wars, there were no memorials to the nurses or the civilians who were captured and murdered during the Second World War. Misto donated his prize money to their cause and in 1999 at long last a memorial was unveiled.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play for two older women. It’s a memory play and a play about friendship and broken trust. Bridie was an Army Nurse captured by the Japanese. Sheila was a young girl sent out of Singapore by her parents on a boat that was torpedoed in the harbour.

The two characters are Misto’s invention, but you can sense that many parts of the story they tell are similar to what he heard from many of the women he interviewed. In his author’s notes he writes: “Although the characters of Bridie and Sheila are fictional, every incident they describe is true and occurred between 1942 and 1995.”

To stop the play becoming maudlin with reminiscing, Misto gives his two protagonists a burning problem for the present. After rescuing each other time and again and being closer than many of us ever get to be, Bridie and Sheila have not seen each other since the end of the war. During the course of The Shoe-Horn Sonata we gradually find out why.

And the play’s title? The women formed a choir and used Bridie’s shoe-horn as a metronome.

SHEILA: We forgot the Japs – we forgot our hunger – our boils – barbed-wire – everything … Together we made this glorious sound that rose above the camp – above the jungle – above the war – rose and rose and took us with it. Fifty voices set us free.

BRIDIE: Fifty voices and a shoe-horn …

Publisher: Currency Press (1996)

Cast: 2F (and 1M voice over)

For more information on the women prisoners of war, read this article by Hank Nelson in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial.

175: Shimada

17 Oct

Jill Shearer‘s Shimada is a play which will have painful overtones for some while enlightening many others with its take on prisoner trauma and economic rationalism.

Chindit column in Burma

A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.

Eric, the central character, is a survivor of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. But the war is long gone, he’s outlived his mates and the company he helped found is now looking at selling out to a Japanese business.

Shimada takes place in Northern Queensland in the office of the bicycle company that’s on the rocks and also in a Prisoner of War camp in an unspecified jungle in World War Two. The flashbacks are Eric’s and the reader/audience gets a strong sense of the constant battle in his head as the past and the present vie for prominence.

Eric becomes convinced that Toshio, the Japanese businessman who has come to buy the company, is actually Shimada, the officer who tortured he and his friends in the PoW camp. Shearer leaves us guessing whether this is in fact the case or whether it’s a trick Eric’s memory is playing on him.

TOSHIO: I too have memory, Mr Dawson. My wife. Akiko. First wife. First … [He stops.] I leave her with parents. Yes, I was in service. We were all in service. Millions. [He stops again.] First wife. Young. Very young. Small. [softly] Like lotus. So many years ago, but like lotus. Like blossom. I leave her with parents. [Pause] I leave her in city of Hiroshima.

ERIC: Blood will have blood, Shimada.

TOSHIO: But people of Japan do not live with those memories, Mr Dawson. People of Japan live … in future!

For a while, the play seems as if it will be an Aussie battler drama: old digger fights off takeover and resurrects family company against all odds, but Shearer has something more sombre in mind. She threads trade unionism, multinational takeovers, protectionism and racism alongside the flashbacks to the war years.

SHARYN: Can’t you see? You’re reinforcing every single thing the Japanese hear about us. Unreliability. Lack of unity.


DENNY: ‘Made in Australia.’

SHARYN: I promise you’ll be looked after.

DENNY: Looked after like my sister’s niece in Brisbane? Her place used to make office stuff. Switched over to imports. Cuttin’ costs they said. Sharks. No shortage of money when it comes to the big ones makin’ it. Just shortage of caring. Carin’ about people who’ve trusted them, worked for them for years. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Japs or our lot. Ends up the same most times. She’s on the dole now.

I came away from reading Shimada thinking about forgiveness. How long do we hold onto the past? Should we revenge our friends’ murders or mourn and let go? If blood will have blood then the cycle will never end.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 4M, 3F (includes some doubling)

150: Daniel Keene part 2

18 Aug

So, today I read the next five plays in To Whom it May Concern and other plays. If I thought my heart was broken yesterday, it was well and truly wrung out today. Every drop of feeling spent.

Daniel Keene: To whom it may concern

Play four, Untitled Monologue, is spoken by a young man trying to survive in the city. He’s left his home and his Dad (who brought him up on his own) to try and find a job in the big smoke. But jobs are scarce, he doesn’t have the sort of experience people want and he’s staying in a hostel where no one wants to talk to him. The play is told through a series of letters home to his Dad interspersed with his thoughts and feelings as it all gets too much for him.

Dear Dad
I almost had some good news on the job front today but it turned out not to be I got called back to a place I’d been interviewed last week but they’d contacted the wrong person and it wasn’t me they were after just someone made a mistake it was a job in a warehouse they wanted someone young and strong to help with loading trucks but it turned out not to be me

Desperate for contact and feeling, never hearing from his Dad and with no money to pay for the hostel, the young man ends up on the street and hurts a woman who speaks to him. He’s lost and seems to have no chance of getting his life ‘back on track’ despite all his good intentions when he arrived.

Play five, Night, a Wall, Two Men, is about the relationship between two older homeless men. They meet every few evenings to talk about life and share stories of what they’ve eaten and who’s dead or suffering more than usual.

Tommy Randells lived in the shed in his old mother’s back yard he hanged himself from the peppercorn tree his mother cut him down herself his tongue sticking out blue and she kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye Tommy goodbye my little darling but he wasn’t little any more he was dead not poor not deaf not hungry not fucking miserable anymore

There’s humour and despair in this piece and the language is as blue as you’d expect from two old blokes who’ve lived rougher and more alone than most of us. There are also short descriptions that hit you in the solar plexus, like this one: There’s a face under these bruises she said it’s my face before Matt got through with me.

Play six, Kaddish, is one of the shortest in the collection and one of the most powerful. A man stands in the room he used to share with the woman he loved and recounts losing her and having to bury her in a pauper’s grave “that was the best I could do for her”. He longs to scream and describes the scream he’d like to give: Pigs I think it’s pigs that have the loudest scream when the butcher sticks his knife into them I’d like to scream like that I’m sure it’s pigs it makes your hair stand on end I’d like to scream like that. Instead of screaming he starts to quietly tear his clothes.

Play seven, The Violin, is spoken by three members of a family, each alone and remembering a time in the past when they were together. I imagined that they were Jewish and that the time they talked of was when the Nazis were in power but this isn’t explicit. What we know is that the man plays the violin, that he sleeps in a bed with his wife and their child between them and that he’s frightened.

Each night he asks his wife the same question, Are we safe? Each night she answers, Yes. But obviously they aren’t because one night they have to pack a suitcase and stand “very straight like bristles on a brush” on a train. The violin case lies open on their table and the candles are never lit again.

The final story, The Rain, is one of the most overwhelming (and seems to follow on from The Violin). It’s narrated by an old woman. She used to stand in a field just a field an ordinary field with nothing in it nothing growing in it just after a while these paths the people wore in the earth all those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people walking across the field. The field was where the people were herded to board the trains for the concentration camps. She was young and would be out walking when they filed past her. As they went, they’d give her things: the precious things they’d been collecting and which they weren’t allowed to take on the train.

She safeguarded everything, sure that one day they’d be back for their treasures. As her house filled up with other people’s things, she had to move into the garden and that’s where she slept while her home became a museum, a shrine to the thousands who’d walked past her in the field.

I dare you to read this collection without a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat.

Publisher: Black Pepper

Cast: Play 4: 1M; Play 5: 2M; Play 6: 1M; Play 7: 1M, 2F; Play 8: 1F

108: Snapshots from Home

7 Jul

Margery Forde’s Snapshots from Home was commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII in the Pacific. 24 oral history stories were taken and Forde was given 600 pages of transcripts from the interviews. From these she fashioned a touching and insightful look at the impact of the war on some of the young people who lived through it.

Snapshots from home

The play has been written to be played by four actors, but it could also be played with a large cast. Music plays an integral part and the cast need to be able to sing and dance to old numbers like Chattanooga Choo Choo, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye.

The lines in the play are divided between four voices, with the character they’re playing denoted in brackets.

VOICE 2 (PRIMARY SCHOOLGIRL): I lived at Graceville. Dad was sure that when the Japanese came, the first thing they’d do would be to bomb the Indooroopilly Bridge. But I went off to All Hallows every day knowing that I was quite safe. If the bridge was bombed and I wasn’t able to get home, the nuns would look after me. The nuns could pray like nobody’s business. They were going to fix everything.

There’s a lot of nostalgia in the script as you’d expect from a verbatim piece about people’s memories. But there’s also a reminder that times weren’t as innocent as we’d like to think.

VOICE 4 (YOUNG MAN): We didn’t see much of the black Americans. They had to stay on the far side of the river, at South Brizzie. There was a place called the Dr. Carver club. It was just opposite the railway station. They said it had the best music in town.

VOICE 2 (YOUNG WOMAN): We never saw American Negroes in Queen Street. And of course, they didn’t come to our homes.

VOICE 3 (A BOY): I was fourteen years old when the Americans came and I’d never seen a black person. Never seen an Aboriginal. The first American Negro I saw I nearly dropped dead with fright.

VOICE 1 (YOUNG WOMAN): They were these huge beautiful looking men. You’d see truckloads of them travelling along Sandgate Road.

VOICE 2: I wouldn’t have gone out with a black America … but then I wouldn’t have gone out with a white one either.


VOICE 2: They came out here to fight for our country and they weren’t allowed to mix with ordinary people. We rejected them.

Margery Forde has structured Snapshots from Home really well so that instead of just reminiscing, the play is shaped thematically and chronologically and travels from the start of the war to the celebrations at the end, including the haunting images of the return of the prisoners of war.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 2M, 2F or a cast of many

84: Lifeboat

13 Jun

Scottish playwright Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat is a gorgeous play for two female actors, based on the true story of the WWII torpedoing of a ship carrying children who were evacuating Britain. Two girls, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, spent 19 hours clinging to an upturned lifeboat, willing each other to survive. Of more than 90 children, only 11 survived including Bess and Beth.

Bess Walder in 1940

Bess Walder in 1940, aged 15

It’s an incredible story and McCartney has written it to be accessible to children and young audiences, but it would be just as moving for adult audiences.

Between them, the two actors play an array of characters, including the girls’ parents, teachers and friends, giving an intimate picture of life in Britain in WWII and, of course, of hanging onto a lifeboat in the freezing ocean.

BESS: Waves are dark, icy, angry – bump – the boat keeps
BETH: Bang – rocking me
BESS: Thump Throwing me up side bump side down.
BETH: Need to keep my
BESS: Head out of the water
BETH: It – smack hurts…
BESS: Glasses, must keep hold of my –
BETH: Mum…I want my mum.
BESS: Can’t see anything without my glasses… Look!
BETH: Hanging on…
BESS: Hanging on…Other hands. Grown up hands hanging on too.
BETH: Mr Leather gloves.
BESS: Mrs Jewelled hands
BETH: Mr Gold watch

One by one the adult hands let go and sink, until it’s just Bess and Beth, clinging to the same rope, facing each other and telling each other to keep going.

The respite for the audience comes in all the humour as they re-enact their stories, showing how they came to be on the boat.

BESS: The air raid shelter’s underneath the school down our road. It’s… packed… bodies everywhere… You all have to jam in together – mums and dads and children and babies and grannies and grandpas and neighbours and.dogs and – hey wait! Get that dog out of here…! Sometimes we have to sleep down here all night until the All Clear sounds.

BETH: What’s nice is that you feel safe… You know it’s dangerous but you go to sleep with all the adults around you, talking, whispering, singing …in the dark. [The people in the shelter start singing.]

BESS: And in the morning when the all clear sounds, I can go out and collect souvenirs – shrapnel.

BETH: I’ve got two bits of German bomber tail fin and six empty bullet cartridges! My mum says:

BETH’S MUM: Ladies do not collect bits of old scrap metal… [Inspecting.] Oh, that looks interesting, where did you find that?

Lifeboat has been performed internationally to great acclaim and will be published later this year.

Cast: 2F