Billy Bishop Goes to War
by John Gray and Eric Peterson
Theatre New Brunswick
The recent commemoration of Canada's role in the battle of Vimy Ridge, not to mention the Somalia inquiry, has reminded lots of us that heroism in war is a pretty dicey concept. What may look like heroism from the outside-- from a few hundred miles away or a from a couple of decades later --may in fact have looked at the time a lot more like saving your butt. This is an issue that is somewhere near the center of Billy Bishop Goes to War, Theatre New Brunswick's last production of this season, which opened Friday night.
Billy Bishop the show is becoming almost as much a Canadian institution as Billy Bishop the hero, and we feel almost as ambivalent about it. In some ways, it's a truly wonderful script. John Gray and Eric Peterson (who created the title role of Billy almost twenty years ago) solved the limitations of a one-character show neatly by creating the "Player," who is not only an accompanist and occasional vocal backup, but provides a set of sound effects and musical punctuations, and, more important, a kind of mediation between the audience and the story. The attention of the Player to the main character is an important part of the texture of the show: he's between us, who are pure audience, and the narrator, not just as accompanist but as a sort of a participant-observer.
There are also lots of fine moments in the script: gripping narratives and amusing characters and funny stories. But then there are some pretty serious problems with it, too. The songs are, well, clever in a Gilbert and Sullivan sort of way, but they're pretty derivative. More important is the way the script refuses to push us to face the ambivalence it embodies about Billy and what he stands for. The Canadian patriotism at its heart is not tested against the recognition that Billy Bishop, putting it bluntly, could only do one thing well, and that was kill people -- often in ways that didn't quite respect the code of gallantry we often think of as characterizing those magnificent men in their flying machines who are part of our mythology of war.
The TNB production gives us an enjoyable evening of music and laughter. It does so, though, by ignoring those deeper and more troubling implications of the script and of Bishop's life. When, in this production, Billy and the Player sing, "it didn't seem like war at all, at all," we're allowed to forget that, yes, it was, even though it may not have seemed so -- and that it was Billy Bishop and his friends who were the precursors of the firebombers of Dresden, and Coventry, and Hamburg, and the grandfathers of Canada's Somalia "peacekeepers." In Hank Stinson's portrayal, when Billy says, about the killing, "I like it," the line gets a charmed laugh. When Billy recounts the rigors and hazing of boot camp and the infantry (a speech which has a little more potential resonance since we learned what goes on when you join the Airborne these days), what we hear is an avuncular old soldier telling gentle and amusing stories about his younger days -- we don't hear the anger he might have felt, and we're not invited to feel any ourselves.
Still, there's a lot to be admired and enjoyed about this incarnation of Billy. Two wonderful performers and an elegant and remarkably simple production are enough to make up in charm for what you might otherwise call a lack of depth.
I'll start with the production values. When I've seen "Billy" it's been heavy on props and on "concept." In the Playhouse the last time we saw it in Fredericton, right there on stage was what seemed a lifesize replica of a first world war biplane. In Walter Learning's elegant concept, though, we go back to the roots of what the show is -- an aging soldier's reminiscences. The production is a subtly operatic heightening of what you might run into late one night down at the Legion.
David Westlake's fine set is a cocktail lounge after closing time, the piano shrouded and the tables deserted. When Billy needs an airplane to tell his story, he magically constructs one out of a round table and a couple of straight-backed chairs. Each time we need a plane, the chairs and tables assume a new, more elaborate and more miraculous shape, inviting the audience into Billy's storytelling in a way no elaborate hanger and life-size plane possibly could. As Billy perches on a chair, manipulating two chairs slung across a hat rack so that their backs become the wings, the audience becomes imaginatively engaged in a way that only theatre can engage us.
In general, TNB's production values are, as usual, impressive. One memorable moment, for instance, is the lighting change when Billy discovers that crossing the ocean on a troopship means being seasick. Instantly, we realize that Billy's face has gone green and he's moving unsteadily back and forth, back and forth . . .
And then there are the two extraordinary performances. There's an interesting and effective contrast between the characters. Hank Stinson plays Billy as quite a lot older than I remember seeing him: he's telling stories about what is, for him, a long time ago. On the other hand, the Player, Michael Doherty, is young and looks younger: he's an image of the perfect soldier -- sort of a ghost of all Billy's dead buddies. The interplay between them is precise, elegant, and electrically charged, as the Player listens with a kind of sardonic expectancy, punctuating the narrative with perfectly timed and exquisitely modulated musical interventions and backgrounds.
Hank Stinson's not only a fairly elderly-looking Billy, he's a funny, graceful, charming and innocent one. Only occasionally -- when dealing with the parody Brits he does so well -- does he slip into a bit of Bob and Doug McKenzie Canajan hoser. Among the seventeen characters he slips in and out of, his female impersonations -- not to mention the outrageous French accent of his cabaret singer -- leave a good deal to be desired, but are still pretty funny. And although his movements on stage occasionally seemed a bit uncertain (at one point, up on the round table, I thought he wasn't absolutely certain he was going to maintain his balance), on the whole his jocular innocence and spot-on timing kept the audience engaged and on his side.
And we stay on Billy's side, in spite of the lost opportunity of his repeated letters home, all of which end "thinking of you constantly, I remain . . . " In this production, and in Stinson's take on Bishop, the letters are tossed away; they aren't played for pathos, or to foreground the ironic contrast between the bloody savagery of army life and the normal human affections of the letters. They're just expository devices.
Musically, Stinson was perfectly competent, but I suspect that with Mike Doherty's support even I might have seemed pretty competent. Doherty's musical skills have been known to many Frederictonians for some years -- at least since his stint as one of the creative mainstays of Fredericton's only reggae band, Ujamaa. But in this production he demonstrates not only a sensitive and precise musical sensibility, but a considerable talent for theatre. His attention to Hank Stinson's Billy, and his impeccable timing, repeatedly made the difference between a scene or line going flat or soaring. When his voice joined Stinson's it was neither dominant nor supportive; it raised the music to a new level.
As theatre, as an evening of entertainment, this is the best production of "Billy Bishop Goes to War" I've seen -- but, finally, perhaps it's more entertaining than the script ought to be. When Stinson, as the Englishman explaining to Billy what a hero is, says "The British like their heroes cold and dead," it's just funny; it's not appalling, too, as it might be. Billy says, "I can't believe how young we were back then," and there's the Player, reminding us, like a ghost, of how it was to be young and how many didn't make it to be old. In this production, though, there's not much attempt to give that line resonance. This production is about good stories told by nice old guys in the bar at the Legion. Nobody -- least of all Billy -- learns anything in this production. "It was a hell of a time," Billy says. Yes, clearly, that's exactly what it was, but this Billy never comes to understand that.
For one evening, though, forget Somalia and Vimy Ridge, and go watch two fine performers in an elegantly conceived production.