Oh, What a Lovely War! at Hart House Theatre
I had no idea what I was walking into, to be honest. I had heard of this satirical musical probably from my days at York University, Toronto, when I studied theatre set design and arts administration, but I couldn’t really tell you what it was or would be like. (FYI: this is also not really going to be a full review, but more a commentary of the evening as I have a friend in the show, and I was really just there to support him.) The oddly constructed abstract of a musical about the First World War was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London on March 19, 1963 under the watchful eye of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Constructing its unique structure and alternative linear formulations, Joan Littlewood, along with her partner Greg Raffles, Charles Chilton, and the cast found a way to use old music hall songs, such as “Oh It’s a Lovely War” to find the pulse and rhythm of the meandering piece. Collaborating at every turn of phrase and function, the oddly orchestrated musical uses those traditional songs from the era and recrafts them to make sideways commentary on nationalistic power and the love of war by certain functionaries within government and those men in power. Interestingly, it was also made into an abstract conceptual film in 1969 directed by a young ‘fresh-to-the-scene’ Richard Attenborough with a cast made up of actors who you might have heard of: Maggie Smith, Corin Redgrave, John Gielgud, Colin Farrell, and Laurence Olivier. Now that’s a film I need to watch once again, not that it sounds like the film will shine much of a light on the stage version.
In the original stage production, a cast of around 12-15 men and women wore pierrot costumes, adding a sense of whimsical artistry, although it was mainly because Littlewood hated the color khaki on stage. The choice wisely removed personal identity and allowed each cast member to play numerous parts. This isn’t a musical with standard plot devices and interpersonal relationships between characters though, but a social commentary piece where each segment has something quite detailed to say about the act of war and why men are so eager to engage in it. In the Hart House Theatre production, directed with a clear modern vision by Autumn Smith (Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus’ Pirates of Penzance), the cast of 6 men and 6 women, dressed in combat black by costume designer Yasaman Nouri, with added patchworks to make their allegiances known, find their combat terrain inside a modern violent video game twist, researched by Gerry Raffles after treatments by Ted Allan and others. It’s a compellingly strong idea, although sometimes the talking head narrator projected onto the screen, courtesy of projection designer Ian Garrett, distances us from the action of the real life humans in front. The animated face drones on sometimes, failing to untangle us emotionally in the dramatics, but for the most part, his presence and tone is clear and concise. The sound design by Kelly Anderson struggles with mixed results, feeling like the volume and tonal quality are out of balance between characters. It’s probably a financial matter, but it does distract throughout. It makes for the missing of details that are needed to totally stay with the structure. The over accentuating of accents by the actors playing the powerful ones don’t help much either as their delivery is hard to hear fully and understand completely. The imbalance leads to a muddling of comprehension and understanding of the text, but luckily, the piece is well lit by designer Ella Wieckowski, giving us plenty of unique and compelling scenarios to take in and contemplate the recreation of heroic battles and damaging stagnation. These are the “warriors of the game” alongside the “lambs to the slaughter” as Director Smith writes in his note. “There will always be a game…as long as there are those who get sucked into playing it.”
The action shifts and moves with great speed, finding an athletic dynamic that makes us applaud the actors abilities to deliver. Flying across the stage, the antics add up, all while details, images, and data are projected onto the back wall shedding light onto the complex gymnastics that were a part of the First World War. The first act of Oh, What a Lovely War! is constructed to draw the audience into the absurd sentimentality of war propaganda that was prevalent at the beginning of the First World War, and the cast, particularly the talented women who play the men in power (a very nice commentary of misogyny and sexism); Rebecca Bauer; Raechel Fisher; Mackenzie Kelly; Katie Ready-Walters; Jillian Robinson; and Khira Wieting; do their due diligence delivering the drama and the stats. Traditionally, the musical opens Seaside, where the young characters are relaxing taking in the air, that is until the MC announces that it is time for “the war game” to start. Here at Hart House, Smith has taken that conceptual idea and cleverly loaded up a war video game for us to bear witness to. The powerful leaders take the foot soldier players: Simon Bennett; Ethan Curnett; Kristiaan Hansen; David Jackson; Mark McKelvie; Patrick Teed; to task, asking them to pledge allegiance to the crown before they are put through an exhausting calisthenics dance routine and marched off to fight in a war that they don’t really understand. The enthusiasm on the faces of these six young talented actors and men as they look into a future filled with glory and heroic actions breaks our collective hearts, as we know that these are the very same men who will suffer the consequences of the decisions made by the powerful, with little to no regard for their personal history or individual meaning.
Bringing the first act to a close is the famous Christmas Day meeting between the British and German soldiers in no-man’s land. It takes this production a little while to get to the meat of the matter, humdruming along with dialogue that is hard to hear at times, but once the songs “Heilige Nacht” and “Christmas Day in the Cookhouse” begin to float up and out into the dark night most beautifully, thanks to music director Justin Hiscox, an emotional lump in my throat grew dense. The significance of the horror ahead for these men accumulates heavy on our heart like the snow falling down from the skies onto that muddy piece of landscape that exists between the armies. The first act abruptly ends with the very first explosive act, blowing up the serenity and good naturedness that existed.
The moment gives way to a second half that delivers the true horror of the realities of war pointing strongly at the disregard the men in power have for this young innocent soldier players. Their sing “Gassed Last Night” slaps hard, as they fumble through the smoke coughing and dying. The player game of power that lands General Haig in command of the British Army is most effective in showcasing the politics of war and the disregard of the value in experience, much like the American administration right now who value social and financial loyalty over expertise. We watch the General’s orders produce time and time again fruitless and deadly offensives with a high casualty number, but his response is to push the numbers away as if they are immaterial. The show at moments gets repetitive in the theme, but the cast is eager to project the required ideas and songs in order to reflect the brutal reality of life in the trenches. Religion and faith in country are used, but we see, through the faces of these actor/players the truth and brutality of what war truly brings.
The projected conclusions of the surviving troops returning home add to the ridiculousness of the glorification of war, and the cycle of heartless violence that exists within. The reality of the frightening statistics of men killed or wounded from all the nations involved hit home with a vengeance. Against this upsetting compilation, the ensemble strongly pulls its last punch, finalizing the stark horrors of the First World War with a lasting image of crosses that stretch far beyond our scope or imagination. The “game is won“, we are told, but the loss of life due to the foibles of combat will live on. Hart House’s Oh! What a Lovely War does the job well as it satirically chronicles the deeply upsetting constructs of a war where men are treated like pawns on a chessboard, or computer generated warrior players in a mega-violent video game. No one wins when the brutal hand of war is dealt out by leaders who have no understanding of the pain and death that war brings. And we can only hope that one particular leader of that large country to the south doesn’t have the opportunity to prove this historic conceptual fact true once again. Fingers crossed. But find your way to Hart House to experience this abstract and satirical play on structure and form. Oh, What a Lovely War is not your average musical, but the topic needs to be heard and understood time and time again, or else.