“I want the working classes to say to the masters: We don’t want war! We don’t want to go to the war!”
Steve La Hood, one of the founders of Story Inc, is standing on a soap box in front of a green screen, dressed in his Sunday best, declaiming to an invisible cheering audience. He is channeling Joseph Jones, an anti-war activist who spoke these words on the Wellington waterfront in 1916 (and was jailed for a year as a result).
The performance is part of our temporary exhibition “Dissent” which is on until October at the Great War Exhibition at the old Dominion Museum at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington. The show is the second in a series of seven which will play out over the next year and a half or so (the first one was “Wounded”; the third will be “Passchendaele”).
“Dissent” is about those who, in one way or another, opposed New Zealand’s involvement in World War I. Over the last few years of the centenary of the war, we have remembered the bravery of those who served. But this is the story of a different kind of courage: the moral courage to go against the majority and stand up for your own beliefs ‒ as Joseph Jones goes on to say, “not matter what the consequences”.
The eight-minute show plays out on six big screens arranged around the walls of the exhibition space. It uses verbatim statements from a range of people who opposed the war: Tainui leader Princess Te Puea (and her grandfather, King Tawhiao); Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana, whose son was shot dead in a police raid; conscientious objectors Mark Briggs, who was essentially tortured by his military captors, and Archibald Baxter, father of poet James K Baxter. We also quote from letters from ordinary New Zealand soldiers at the front who became disillusioned with the war, and veterans looking back in the years that followed.
As we researched the subject with our creative partners Dusk we realized that we had a problem. Our dissenters’ powerful words had been recorded for posterity; but we had almost no pictures of them from the war years, apart from a few police mug shots. Dusk’s solution was to re-enact the statements - but rather than striving for a realistic look, to deliberately stylize the scenes, bringing the dissenters to life in a stark, black and white, “Brechtian” theatrical world.
Thanks to some outstanding performances (including pieces in the appropriate dialects of te reo Māori, recorded by WINTEC in Hamilton), the result is something we are very proud of, bringing alive a disturbing ‒ but ultimately uplifting ‒ piece of our history.