Entering the Udderbelly, the upturned cow currently gracing
Bristo Square, the audience glimpses vignettes of army camp life during the
Second Boer War, toward the shabby, shag-end of which 'Breaker Morant' is set.
Although the British army effectively won the war in a short space of time,
owing to the South African Boer's obsession with tying down insignificant
British garrisons through expensive sieges, the Boers themselves refused to
recognise the inevitability of their defeat. In response, units were raised
to employ their own 'Commando' tactics against these 'Bitter Enders'.
One such was the Bushveldt Carbineers' and it is with the
behaviour of three officers of this unit that the court martial which forms the
main focus of 'Breaker Morant' is concerned. Harry 'Breaker' Morant was the
scapegrace son of a British Admiral, sent out to Australia to redeem himself.
His redemption proved his downfall; after distinguishing himself as a volunteer
in the early days of the war, his actions whilst with the Bushveldt Carbineers
led to charges of shooting prisoners out of hand, charges also brought against
two other officers, Lieutenants Handcock and Witton.
Both as a film (it's original form, with the late Edward
Woodward in the title role) and as a play by Kenneth G. Ross, 'Breaker Morant'
is high court-room drama which is with its protagonist from the outset. In the
play version in this production, at least, there seems little light and shade
and a large amount of black and white.
The interrogation of the three accused
which opens the play would probably get a round of applause from the
perpetrators of extreme rendition, but feels unlikely in the context of the
time, if not the place. The verdict of the court martial is presented as a
forgone conclusion, quite possible given British anxiety at the time to placate
a rising Germany whose ruler was a relative of Queen Victoria, and to
demonstrate to a British public increasingly uneasy about a long and costly war
that even-handedness and fair play could still be the order of the day, even
when it is quite clear that in any real orders of the day, they scarcely
Nonetheless, there are some fine performances here,
particularly Adam Hills as Morant, Sammy J as Defence Counsel Major Thomas, and
Alan Francis as Johnson, the prosecuting officer. In some other cases, it felt
as if the Establishment had clutched at the nearest security blanket and was
determined not to let go; although this production is a British premiere, the
justification for bringing the piece to the stage surely lies in its awful
From Sumer or the original 'Armageddon' to Afghanistan or
Iraq, grubby, shameful military misjudgments have to be judged outwith the
contexts of the situations in which they were made. Those who follow orders can
find themselves betrayed by those they obeyed. The Edinburgh Fringe is perhaps
not the easiest place to get complex messages heard, but this reviewer can't
help feeling tighter direction, sharper eyes on the script and its possible layers
of meaning and more work on some characterisations would have helped this show
Dates: 4 - 27 August
Copyright Bill Dunlop 2007, published on EdinburghGuide.com, 2007