Russ Hunt's Reviews

Oh, What a Lovely War

Theatre St. Thomas
March 2000

When Oh, What a Lovely War was first produced, its virulent, aggressive anti-war stance was deliciously scandalous. Audiences associated the no-holds-barred assault on all the old clichés about valor, and king and country, with all the dramatic social changes accompanying the youth rebellion of the sixties, as a whole generation of young people scandalized their parents and rejected their values. Scenes like the one where the newly minted millionaire war profiteers talk about disposing of surplus population -- a generation was beginning to feel the threat of the rising tide of war in Viet Nam -- had an immediate, personal resonance that, here in the oughts of the new millennium, we perhaps don't feel quite as immediately.

Similarly, the audience in London in 1964 included lots of people who remembered the old songs, remembered the optimistic headlines (and the reports of unprecedented and unimaginable numbers of casualties), and for whom the casual irreverence of the show's attitude toward the generals and civilians who sent a generation of young men off to the slaughterhouse of Ypres and the Somme was a sensuous, violent shock, a sudden douse in a cold shower.

All these circumstances meant that a show which had no particular immediate human focus, no continuing character we could come to care about, no story to speak of, and no real resolution, could be powerful (and immensely successful) in spite of the handicaps, simply because of the immense static charge between its subject and the society around it.

The fact that the show no longer comes with that electric charge means that a production of it, to work really well, needs to create the charge with something else -- with staging, with excitement and precision, perhaps by inviting us to make similar connections with issues of similar import now: Serbia, Chechnya, Somalia (and, of course, Sarajevo). The show, in other words, is a lot more challenging than it seems at first glance, which is the main reason the solid, competent, professional-level production given it by Theatre St. Thomas isn't the triumph many theatregoers had hoped for.

In theory, the show has a lot going for it. It's one which is centrally about ensemble acting -- there are no stars; there are really only a few really focal roles -- and, under Ilkay Silk, this has been Theatre St. Thomas's strong suit for years. This show is no exception. There are seventeen actors, moving on and off stage on tight cues and with fairly substantial backstage costume- and character-changes, and the authority with which a new scene is set, instantly, as a half dozen, or a dozen, or indeed all seventeen actors magically appear on stage to create an entirely a new world for us, is an impressive achievement. The look of the production, in designer George Fry's narrow, elegant palette of colors which make everybody part of the team of clownlike "Pierrots" who tell us the war story, is memorable, and the back wall, a series of hanging panels through which the entire cast can appear instantly, if necessary, is a clever idea, especially since the upper part of the panel serves as a screen on which the continuing projections of nicely-timed war headlines and photographs form a counterpoint to the action below. And the complicated and elegant lighting design, complete with archaic-looking follow spots, pinpoints of light for isolated characters, and subtle changes of mood, used the facilities of the Black Box effectively.

One thing that was missing, I think (aside from the unrecoverable charge of seeing it in 1964), was, in large measure, the language of the play. When it was clearly punctuated, as it often was in the memorable appearances of Darrell Mesheau as a drill sergeant and a bull-headed, single-minded, self-deluded general, it still has punch and shock value. But too often on opening night whole speeches were lost in the shuffle, unarticulated, not given the whipsnap pop that would have made us flinch, as we do at the general's remark that he doesn't want any whining about casualties. Many scenes which should have got the kinds of strangled and conflicted laughs we utter when we laugh at something which, on reflection, isn't all that funny, didn't, because the actors didn't make us hear the lines and their punch. When they did work, as in the laconic conversation between two soldiers about whether a buddy had been sick or "sucked down," they worked marvelously, but we missed many opportunities for that kind of wince.

It's important, too, that the show is a musical. Much of the charge comes from the contrast between the songs of the era and the show's ambivalent take on them -- sometimes presented simply by contrast, as with the lovely, nostalgic "Roses of Picardy," performed beautifully by Christian Robichaud and Christine Morgan -- and sometimes by parody, as in "Forward Joe Soap's Army," which takes "Onward Christian Soldiers" and turns it inside out. In general, the music in the show is performed well -- it's always better when there's a live band, especially when, as in this case, the band becomes part of the production, with sound effects and portentous announcements. If the dancing doesn't always have the precision we might have looked for, it's okay because, like so much of the show, it's as much a parody of the musical as it is a musical itself -- for instance, the first full-company dance number deliberately disintegrates into chaos, ended by the whistle of the leader of the "Pierrots," played by a wonderfully confident Christian Robichaud, one of the many actors on stage with a genuinely magnetic stage presence.

There are other performances which draw one's eye -- Tim Doiron's guttural French general "negotiating" with the English, Matt Richardson's terrified doughboy face looking over the parapet, Juliette Bossé's desperate antiwar activist being shouted down by the crowd -- but on the whole it's fundamentally an ensemble production, as the program, which lists the company but makes no attempt to identify the dozens of roles each member plays, makes clear. And there are many moments which startle and disturb. If it doesn't amount to a triumph, it's still an achievement Theatre St. Thomas should be happy with, and which will reward its audience with understanding and emotion. You won't think the same way about glowing news reports about smart bombs any more, after you've seen Oh, What a Lovely War.

A take on the play -- not a review, but a response to it -- by my colleague Thom Parkhill is here.

Second thoughts, on seeing the production again

One of the wonderful things about university and amateur productions is that, unlike professionals, those involved often learn amazing amounts during the run of the production (as well as during the preparation time). I have rarely seen a production improve as much as this one did between opening night and my second visit on Friday night.

What was particularly noticeable the second time was the increased clarity and projection of the language: many of the scenes which had fallen short of stunning the audience on the first night were much more powerful on Friday; this in turn had the effect of promoting closer and more intense attention on the part of the audience -- and in turn I think this kept the actors focused, because they felt much more strongly how well the scenes might work. There were a number of points where this seemed particularly noticeable -- for example, the discussion among the war profiteers was much clearer, and its contrast with the suffering in the juxtaposed scenes was thus much stronger and more effective. The discussion among the women working in the munitions industry and making shrouds was much more powerful, so we felt the contrast between the relative indifference of the women and the lives actually being lived (and not lived) by the boys in the trenches was palpable.

All this, and a generally tighter rhythm of the production (which may have felt tighter because we were attending more closely to the contrasts the show specializes in), added up to a genuinely moving experience, one in which the astonishingly demanding lighting and sound and slide projections, and the demands on the band not only for music but for sound effects as well, became even more effective because more clearly in the service of a unified impact.

It may perhaps have been the consequence of having done it a couple more times with an audience; on Friday night the musical numbers seemed, across the board, brighter and more comprehensible. This show remains an anomalous musical because so many of the musical moments are fragmentary or appear as part of something else, and fade -- like the parody hymns or the snatches of trench songs -- instead of being full-fledged "numbers." But by Friday we were more likely to be moved or amused by Maureen Batt's "Keep the Home Fires Burning" or Kyla Wright's "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts" because we expected the snatches of song to relate in significant ways to what we'd heard and seen before, and what we were about to hear and see.

One of the interesting things about the Friday night show was that the audience almost never applauded an individual number, because the momentum of the show kept pushing us along. The only time I thought this was a problem was at the very end, when director Ilkay Silk, characteristically, didn't give us as long to applaud as we wanted. The final reprise of "Oh, What a Lovely War," during which we applauded, ended, the cast went off, and even though I think all of us wanted to show our gratitude even more, didn't come back. We had to be content to applaud the band, finishing their evening with a flourish . . . but I think all of us would have welcomed the cast back for a bit more applause. And Ilkay, too.

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