Monday, August 06, 2018

Creative, history exposing “Oh What a Lovely War, compels at The Shaw

“You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”  (G. Bernard Shaw)

World War I, “the war to end all wars,” lasted in Europe from July 1914 to November 1918.  Yes, this November marks the 100th anniversary of the end of that horrific and senseless conflict. 

“Over nine million combatants and seven million civilians died as a result of the war (including the victims of a number of genocides), a casualty rate exacerbated by the belligerents' technological and industrial sophistication [gas, airplanes, cannons, tanks] and the tactical stalemate caused by grueling trench warfare. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and precipitated major political change.” 

About 67,000 Canadians were killed in the battles and numerous others suffered from psychological issues, which, today, are called Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.

It is therefore appropriate that The Shaw dedicate at least part of its season to examining the conflict between the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungry and Turkey and The Allies—France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan and from 1917 on—The USA.

“Oh What a Lovely War” was conceived as a radio play which was transferred to the stage in 1963 under the foresighted direction of Joan Littlewood.  It was her creativity that makes it possible to adapt each production to the venue in which it its produced. 

It is a juke box musical in which previously written songs are shoe-boxed into a story line (think “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia”).  Song order and selection can be adjusted as to the perception of the director.

Other Littlewood theatrical practices include the use of Commedia dell’arte which encourages actors to improvise and be larger-than life regarding gestures, dance and acrobatics.  Clowns playing various characters, music hall song, dance, slapstick and drama is also present.  Actors switch roles.

Following Littlewood’s concept of “Fun Palaces,” the creation of spaces where local people could come together, designer Teresa Przybylski and director Peter Hinton, have the audience using The Royal George theatre, as it was in 1918.  The time of play jumps from then to today, with speeches given both from the stage and the auditorium to envelop the audience in the production.

The staging includes numerous film clips and projections to create visual war and anti-war feelings.

Using “Tommy Tunes,” a book of 1917 songs written in the trenches, well-known songs of the era, hymns and songs from west end shows, the production is a critique of the great war.

The title comes from one of those songs. 
“Who wouldn't join the army?
That's what we all inquire,
Don't we pity the poor civilians sitting beside the fire.
Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
Who wouldn't be a soldier eh?”

Hinton’s direction of the very long show, 2 hours and 50 minutes including intermission, grabs and holds the attention.

Using pianos to not only be played, but to create trenches, horses and walls, the ever changing sets are choreographed nicely to make for smooth transitions from one scene to another.

The dialogue has been adjusted to include the difficult role of the Indigenous people, blacks and women to actively participate in the war.  Numerous references to the Niagara area are also incorporated.

Song highlights include “Row, Row, Row,” “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kitbag,” “Roses of Picardy,” “And When I Die,” “I Want to Go Home,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”

The ensemble cast is universally strong, switching roles, accents and even genders, with ease.  The singing and acting are top notch.

Capsule judgment: “Oh What a Lovely War” is not only a compelling stage production, it is a fine history lesson and one of the few real highlights of The Shaw’s 1918 season.  This is a must see!