The Colours: Melbourne Theatre Company

The Colours: Melbourne Theatre Company

The Colours, which Peter Houghton both wrote and stars in, is predominantly a showcase of the technical skill of the actor. And while this is just about enough in a monologue that consistently engages with Houghton’s vibrant performance, the heart of the piece does seem to have been overlooked. This is not fault of Houghton himself, and it seems that in the many stages of production when a hook could have been found, the creators fell back on the performance and well-honed language of the piece, unable to extend beyond it.

Colour Sargeant Atkins is the last man stationed in a remote part of a generic African nation at the end of Empire, 1946. Atkins is an old-school career soldier, gaining his stripes and his pride through the various battles of the First World War, leading into the second. It soon becomes apparent living with this man that he has gone off the deep end, interacting with a series of increasingly tangible ghosts from his past, from his regiment, from the various touch stones of the early Twentieth Century, moments that the modern world has either canonised or forgotten. These historical events, theoretically, are used to reflect on his life, his place amongst the relics of the past, even giving Houghton room to jibe the nationalistic nostalgia of ANZAC, a soft and knowing in-joke to the audience. But this, as well as many other thoughts are not fully extended.

So at some point you have the put the history aside. ANZAC, Ypres, the Somme, El Alamein, these are the sites that you reel off to demonstrate any particular point about the futility of war. Churchill, Kitchener, Hitler, again a series of names, names that are powerful and potent, but, at this stage in history, in this time of reconfiguration, revisiting, rehabilitating and reviling, being able to reel them off is not good enough anymore. In order to use these events, these names, these ideas of history, of historical markers, there needs to be an intention, a substance that was lost in the overall production of The Colours. A knowledge of history does not mean that the audience will be happy simply having a Pavlovian response to certain names and terms being used.

But back to Houghton. This is the third time I’ve seen him in action and he is, simply, a brilliant actor. His ability to immerse himself in the manic Atkins, to pull out the various characters that help to tell Atkins‘s story is admirable. He is one man on stage for seventy five minutes, taking a schizophrenic journey through the mind of a career soldier whose life has unravelled in the space of a few months. If more care had been taken in figuring out the substance of the piece the effect would have been breathtaking.

The Colours plays at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) Lawler Studio until September 12.

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