By Adam Collier
Oh What A Lovely War is Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre at its best
In an early scene of Oh What A Lovely War at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, a projection above the stage reads: The Shot That Was Heard Around The World.
“Did you hear a shot?” asks one figure of another.
“No” says the other, “I heard nothing.”
A nearby bartender then happens to mention the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the other figures drag him away.
Maybe more of an absurd skit than a scene, Oh What A Lovely War is an imaginative interpretation of the British experience of the events of the First World War. Its early scenes, each no more than five minutes in length, depict the spying and breakdown in diplomacy that preceded the battles.
(In the scene above, for example, shortly before dragging the bartender away, the figure on the right announces, “I am a spy for Austria!” “Well I am a spy for Hungary!” replies the other.)
Oh What A Lovely War pivots from a broad, archly absurd, take of events to focus on Britons in England and on the Western Front during the war. A scene that vividly sticks in my head is set in a trench on Christmas night when the guns stopped firing.
Another shows women no more than twenty-five-years old happily anticipating the return of young soldiers (“turn the dark cloud inside-out ‘til the boys come home” rings the chorus).
Closer to the end of Oh What A Lovely War, a lone woman on stage reads out an anti-war speech by George Bernard Shaw as her compatriots, standing in the audience, attempt to shout jokes over her words.
Although moments like the above protest occasionally emerge, tempering the satire away from pure absurdity by acknowledging the weight of the subject matter, the live music and humor keep the show’s mood light and buoyant.
The old trope that there’s nothing funny about war is evidently untrue.
One of the funniest scenes of Oh What A Lovely War depicts four recruits learning how to use a bayonet. And after watching a young soldier try to impress his nearly incomprehensible captain by stabbing the air elaborately with an umbrella and then twirling it on his shoulder, it seems – at the very least – that some of the glory and expectation of going to war approach the absurd.
For me, the most extraordinary quality of this theatre experience is that I left feeling physically energized by the show. And that rarely happens to me. Not only does Oh What A Lovely War make the most of satire to illuminate a challenging event in history, it goes beyond that by igniting a deeper optimism of what’s possible in the context of adversity.
Credits include Lorenzo Savoini for lighting and costume design that reflect a scrupulous eye. Albert Schultz, the director, has orchestrated a superb cast (that includes Oliver Dennis, Ryan Field, Michael Hanrahan and a few debuts, including Alison Jutzi, George Masswohl and Doug Price) and harnessed their muscular talent. The sound design, by Mike Ross, includes some of the best drumming in Toronto.
Oh What A Lovely War is Soulpepper at its best; I’d strongly recommend this production!
– Oh What A Lovely War played at the Young Center for the Performing Arts (in the Distillery District) until April 10th
– Tickets for all other current Soulpepper productions can be purchased online, by phone (416-866-8666) or at the box office
– Bonus extra: Click here for a link to watch a movie clip of the 1969 film version of Oh What A Lovely War!