When history was made in 2008 with the discovery of the wreckage of HMAS Sydney (II), I’m ashamed to say that my collective response was ‘ok, so what?’. Newspapers tried to distill decades of mystery, emotion, and mourning into succinct headlines aiming to convey the importance of the event. Articles worked hard to explore the impact of this in Australian history, but the often dry prose missed the most important aspect of the story: the humanity, the personal, the cross-generation trauma of the unknown.
With Theatre 180’s production of Sydney II: Lost and Found, featuring performances from Myles Pollard, Morgan Dukes, Tom O’Sullivan, and Janet Pettigrew, the emotion of the closure that came with the Sydney’s discovery becomes tangible and palpable. In a unique blend of cinema and theatre, Sydney II: Lost and Found envelopes the true story of Western Australian Able Seaman, Allan Rowe, his wife Jessie, and their daughter whom Allan would never meet, Ellen, amongst the narrative of the explorers and volunteers of the Finding Sydney Foundation. At once, writer Jenny Davis and director Stuart Halusz collapse decades of questioning into an emotional event that may help provide closure for families still wondering about the fate of the 645 men aboard the HMAS Sydney (II).
Distinctly Australian in tone and style, Sydney II: Lost and Found leans into the patriotism of military life, with a tinge of country authenticity thrown into the mix too. Morgan Dukes comfortably flits between characters, but finds the greatest heart as she brings Jessie’s story to life, embodying the hope and passion of young love, the complexity of knowing her partner is at sea, defending a nation, amidst the conflicted sorrow and joy as she has to grapple with the unknown of Allan’s fate, while giving birth to their child. I had seen Morgan previously in Bilched, and enjoyed seeing her flit between youthful joy to deep maturity in the space of a breath.
Morgan is proudly supported by veterans Myles Pollard (McLeod’s Daughters) and Tom O’Sullivan (Underbelly) who both straddle the line between machismo laden bravado, nervousness and apprehension, and then, as the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran (HSK-8) emerges into the narrative, threatening and menacing as Nazi soldiers.
Performances take place on a stage that is encompassed by a large cinema screen where images unfurl. Often quotes will appear, or the unceasing open ocean reveals itself behind the actors, giving a power to their actions on stage. At times, Morgan’s Jessie will converse with her daughter, Ellen (Janet Pettigrew), who appears towering over her on screen.
Early on, one of the men chimes in about the importance of discovering the wreck, because once the baby boom generation is gone, it’s unlikely that subsequent generations will care or carry the same interest in discovering their fate. It’s in these moments that the significance of discovering the wreckage hits home, a direct connection with those lost is made, and while decades have passed, the pain lingers strong in their mind. The audience I saw Sydney II: Lost and Found with was full of people who likely had continued connection to this event, and the emotions in their eyes spoke of the importance of a show like this. Additionally, being able to talk to the actors after the show gave some audience members a chance to thank them for affording an aspect of closure to their grief.
Sydney II: Lost and Found doesn’t just service those who have direct connections to the event, it also provides a fascinating glimpse into the journey of discovering shipwrecks. Budget constraints mean that neither the actual battle between the Kormoran and the Sydney could ever be presented on screen with the respect and care it deserves, and the lack of documentary footage of the search for the wreck means a film can’t be solely constructed out of that. So, instead, Sydney II: Lost and Found plays like a skewed version of Titanic, with the real romance of the past playing against a backdrop of tragedy, while the modern story of historians searching for the truth in the past plays in the present.
At almost two hours long, the wait to get to the meat of the narrative and the actual discovery does take a little bit of patience, but when we’re presented with the images of the wrecked ships, both the Kormoran and the Sydney, it is a magnificent sight to behold. The gradual reveal from the sonar images, creeping onto the screen with the actors on stage eagerly anticipating some kind of evidence of what happened, is quite powerful. And then, the images themselves, of an underwater cemetery that has become a bountiful place for aquatic life to live and flourish, is equally moving. With so much discussion from the characters about the grandeur of these ships, it’s in these moments that I wished for more time with the wrecks themselves to fully comprehend their magnificence and what the Australian soldiers were operating on.
The future of cinema as a whole is continually questioned and prodded, with an enduring question of ‘what will the future hold’ lingering in our minds. The blend of live performances and footage might just be the path to a unique event that will encourage audiences to embrace the cinema en masse once again. At its close, I felt moderately ashamed of my ignorance of the events. I should have known more, I should have been aware of how close Australia came to having WW2 right on our doorstop, with trade routes being disrupted by mines. For whatever failings I had, I now know more, and am grateful that I got to experience this immersive event.
The generation recovering from the shockwave of having lost HMAS Sydney (II) is akin to the generation that is still seeking answers over the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. While the cost aspect of searching is immeasurable, so is the impact of never knowing what had happened. As such, the work of the Finding Sydney Foundation can’t be overestimated for its importance and value, bringing closure for so many, and helping answer the question of ‘what happened to HMAS Sydney (II)?’, allowing generations to heal from the loss of family and friends. Presenting this story with live actors on stage helps ground the narrative and reality of the story in a way that neither a film, nor a newspaper article, ever could, reinforcing what makes us all human: the ability to empathise, support, and care for one another in times of need.
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