In this, the centenary year of the end of World War I, commemorations in all shapes and sizes can’t help but remind most just what a momentous conflict the “Great” war was (so unlike Schubert’s “Great” symphony—No. 9).
At the Shaw Festival this season there are several references—in this case director Peter Hinton’s engagingly creative staging of Joan Littlewoods’s original script (1963) with help from Gerry Raffles, Ted Allan and “other” to make the production relative to Canadians and specifically Niagara-on-the-Lake. (No complaints there, it was always Littlewood’s intention that her work serve as a guide.)
Throughout the performance, there are black-and-white projections (stills, video and various effects) just above the action which silently fill in/enhance the historical blanks, one image at a time. The result is not so much a play but a documentary with music (largely era songs) and a few bits of dance.
The 10-member cast—well-led by Allan Louis—taking on several roles, are more than up to the challenge of portraying life and death in the trenches. Veteran music director Paul Sportelli kept everything running smoothly (with one curious Leonard Bernstein-like large cue that appeared to be ahead of its time), expertly aided and abetted by the zesty five-person band.
Perhaps the most telling moment of all occurs when members of the cast are decked out in red-cross nurse garb (gender fluid, of course). Each has a puppet at their feet and are “working” it with their hands.
Having been thoroughly through not just the carnage (over 10 million casualties, grimly announced on stage by a numeric “score” card), but also the racism from the “good guys” (shown towards Black and Indigenous Canadians), the hugely profitable enterprise for munitions manufacturers—largely in the U.S.—murderous gas in the trenches (brought to searing, ironic death in “The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin”), the inventively staged manipulation of others by the powerful who hold all of the strings on their subjects could not have been more apt. (That scene most effectively paid off in the opening clown tableau and deftly came back for an encore as the hapless combatants went for one more ‘big push” most certainly like sheep to the slaughter.)
Interspersing the horrors with music somewhat softened the collective blow of one of mankind’s (few women had much say in the matter) most pathetic conflicts. Still, there ought to have been more nervous laughter than belly laughs: thank goodness this sort of senseless warfare has been banished to the annals of time. (Well, except for Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar…).
Cautionary play, musical entertainment, gritty documentary? It matters not.
See it and weep. JWR