Confronting constructions of past, memory, and history in Solferino at Toronto’s George Ignatieff Theatre.
Written by Emily Johnson, Solferino picks up two years before Red Cross founder Henry Dunant’s death. Dunant is forcefully persuaded by nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale to finish writing his memoirs and must confront his past: both the good and the bad.
Solferino’s portrayal of Dunant’s struggle to write his memoirs and confront the ghosts of his past seems to be something that many people can identify with. Dunant finds it difficult to reconcile what actually happened with how he would prefer to remember the past as happening, portraying himself in a rosy tinted haze. Nightingale scolds Dunant for refusing to remember things as they actually occurred and ultimately helps him be honest with himself in the years before his death.
The play largely consists of Dunant’s recollections of the past, with nothing occurring in the present. Florence Nightingale serves almost as Dunant’s conscience and as a bit of comic relief in what is otherwise a heavy subject matter.
I can say that from the perspective of a writer and a historian, Solferino is a very well-written play. It combines just the right amount of history with a little comedy and of course, the struggle to accurately remember the past even when it doesn’t benefit us, something that affects each of us, at one point in time or another.
I also liked that Johnson chose to delve into the battle of Solferino (which occurred in 1859), something which I knew nothing about but apparently should have, since it inspired the founding of the Red Cross, one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations.
I found that the play didn’t seem to have a typical story arc and I thought that it ended rather suddenly. Perhaps because the play was supposed to highlight the moments that Dunant saw as defining him, it didn’t need to have a linear storyline to follow. If you’re looking for a play with a lot of action, then this one might not be for you. But if you can appreciate clever dialog and storytelling, then you might really enjoy it.
-Solferino played at George Ignatieff Theatre (15 Devonshire) until July 21
– The show ran from July 20 and runs to July 21 with shows at 8pm and a 2pm matinee on July 20
Photo of Michael MacEachern and Nicole Buscema by Michelle Ramalho