Perhaps time has provided a distance that enables us see the grotesque “War to end all wars” with a certain amount of artistic detachment. All of the military participants in the first world war are now dead, whether they died during the war, or later of wounds, alcoholism, or despair — or some other insidious remnant of that experience. War has been a subject of literature in Western culture since the Greek plays, sometimes as a basis for tragedy, or equally, comedy. Lysistrata, Henry V, Stalag 13, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse Five — the Canon is virtually endless.
Theissen’s script views war from a Canadian perspective. The characters come from various parts of the country and various cultural roots. As one might expect, the action is driven by both culture and character; for example, a French Canadian dies because he rebels against the jingoistic arrogance of his commander who insists that he speak English. A Micmac Indian heroically scouts out enemy positions at night, using skills he perfected stalking animals in the woods in Newfoundland. Lovers face the reality of separation and death.
One of the things I really like about this script is that Thiessen draws us in to suspension of disbelief by doubling some of the characters; for example Kevin Loring plays both the rebellious French-Canadian and the Micmac Indian. We are able to follow these two stories even though the two plots are interwoven. The success of this strategy is a tribute to Loring’s acting skills, Thiessen’s script and Director Linda Moore’s approach to transitions.
Another aspect of the script that I like is that it has a poetic flavour. I had better clarify that by “poetic” I mean that the language of the script is dense and expressive, and the directorial approach subtly allows, encourages the poetry to work through pauses and a tone that is generally understated, but at the same time very aware of what is happening. When I was an adolescent in post-World War II northern Ontario, I became very aware of the elegiac poetry that came out of the first world war. While most of it was British, there were some Canadian poets who made their mark and certainly influenced generations of young Canadian poets to be. I mention this because the Canadian military recently appointed a poet, Suzanne Steele, who spent a year training with the military. Her assignment culminated with a brief tour with the troops in Afghanistan. I have been following her “beta work”, as she calls it, on her website, War Poet. It is Susanne’s work and the heartfelt comments of military personnel, most of them with very little experience with poetry that has attuned me to the poetic spirit of this play. It is elegiac, yes, but it is more than that: it is a look at the distinctly Canadian values that have gone to war and to peace so many times in the last century.
I was particularly impressed by Jonathan Koensgen. The last time I saw him on stage, (ignoring his cameo in Hamlet at the NAC) he was four feet tall, a child actor in Secret Garden. A decade later, it is evident that he has inherited his father’s distinctive voice, and has developed as an actor with remarkable poise and verisimilitude. His character, Sid, who is temporarily blinded, easily could have been over-the-top melodrama, but instead was a sensitive portrayal of a very conflicted and tragic man.
All six of the actors were beautifully up to the task, whether they were working symbolically or realistically or even as stage devices. Notably Katie Swift, when she had to switch between being the emotionally involved nurse, Clare, and removing the helmets of the casualties during the battle. This could have been confusing, but because the audience had accepted the various performance techniques that the cast and director had established, and because of her own ability to switch focus, the scene was a powerful development of the action.
If there is a weakness in the script, it is that there is no emotional centre. I left the play without any particular strong emotion about it. I believe this situation is the result of Thiessen’s decision to present several characters with equal weight. The result is, that while each of the stories taken on its own projects moving events and characters, there is no focus; consequently, the viewer is left with the sense that the strongest engagement of the play is intellectual rather than emotional. I came away with understanding and even conviction, but no strong feeling. If the play is to focus the very strong emotional actions of the play, it is going to have to focus on one major character; otherwise, it is not having a strong impact it could have.
The setting was superbly designed and rendered. If allowed the complex scene changes to occur seamlessly. The audience was never adrift wondering what was happening. It was all very gritty and effective. Lighting and sound expanded the dimension of the action superbly.
All in all, a superb full-length evening that is quite intriguing.
Performance viewed November 18, 2010 8 pm — running time: two hours 5 min. including intermission.
The National Arts Center and Great Canadian Theatre Company present
Vimy by Vern Thiessen
directed by Linda Moore
starring The NAC English Theatre Company
Will: Nicholas Di Gaetano
J.P./Bert: John Doucet
Sid: Jonathan Eliot Koensgen
Mike/Claude: Kevin Loring
Laurie: James Stuart MacDonald
Clare: Katie Swift
Set & Costume Designer: Brian Perchaluk
Lighting Designer: Jock Munro
Composer and Sound Designer: Sandy More
Fight Director: Jean-François Gagnon
Stage Manager: Samira Rose
Apprentice Stage Manager: Chantal Hayman
Assistant Director: Chantale Plante
Sound Operator: Jon Carter
Lighting Operator: Darryl Bennett
Head Scenic Painter: Stephanie Dahmer
Head of Wardrobe: Genviève Ethier