The Blood Votes

Since 2015, Beck Hurst, Rob Pensalfini and I (with stalwart supporters like Sarina Hobbin from HASS, and inspired by the original thought bubble from Martin Crotty) have been working on an idea to dramatize the significance of the WWI home front for non-academic audiences, in particular for school students.

With funding support from the Queensland Anzac Centenary, this settled into developing a dramatic script dealing with the historical events of Australia’s 1916-17 conscription debates, especially as they panned out here in Brisbane. Following original research into the historical sources by one of our recent PhD graduates (Dr Susan Kellett), this body of research was handed over to a playwright for imaginative re-working into a plot suitable for performance. Tragically, our first author, Errol O’Neill, passed away in April 2016 during the early stage of the project, and another Brisbane writer (Michael Futcher) stepped in at short notice in the second half of that year.

Entitled ‘The Blood Votes’, the first version of the play was directed by Rob Pensalfini and staged by members of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble to an invited audience at UQ in February 2017, followed by a Q&A between the audience, the playwright, director and cast. What a great night that was! The audience – which included the Minister assisting the Premier for the Anzac Centenary, Jennifer Howard, UQ Provost Prof. Aiden Byrne, historians, researchers, drama people – were absolutely enthralled. Using historically accurate personalities, speeches, songs and dramatic action, Michael’s draft script succeeded in capturing the pressures, anxieties and divided loyalties of the Australian life during WW1 as it brought out the tumultuous emotions of the conscription debates. Historical personalities like peace activist Margaret thorp and Australian PM Billy Hughes features, along with semi-fictionalised characters to allow for dramatic plot developments.

With more funding success, and further support from the State Government and the HASS faculty, a revised version of the play was performed in full by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, at the Holy Trinity Parish Hall, Fortitude Valley, a few weeks ago on 7-11 November. It was quite a wonderful thing, seeing all our work come to fruition. Full houses for the opening and closing performances, and around 80% full for the others. Very satisfying!

One of the performances was a matinee for school students and teachers: around 80 from four schools across the SEQ region came along and were very involved and positive in their responses. Here’s some of their comments: “The best parts of the performance include, the conscription debate, the fight scene and the white feather scene.” “I thoroughly enjoyed the parts showing that the boy didn't want to go to war, as it taught me the perspective of the Men that were forced to go to War.” “I enjoyed the debates the townspeople had the most, and it let their characters really show and we could clearly see what they stood for and why.” Among our UQ History students that attended, one said that the play succeeded because it didn't ‘dumb down’ the subject to simplify things for the audience. “It was historically very dense – in a GOOD WAY!!”

The last phase of the project will involve creating an educational website to use the script, a film of the performances, and supporting historical documents and analysis as an online education resource for Year 9 History in the Australian Curriculum. This will be hosted on the HPI website by year’s end, so watch this space…

Whew! What a thrilling and amazing thing to be part of. Many thanks to Rob, Beck and Sarina, Martin and Susan, Kat, Kylii and Josie, and especially the sensational thespianistas from the QSE. These two photos show Silvan (UQ Philosophy student), Dudley and Ellie in superb form, just a hint of how good it all really was.

Geoff Ginn (Proud Producer, Set and Props guy)