Does the name Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) ring a bell?
If not, go directly to your local library and see if you can get a hold of her 1994 autobiography, Joan's Book. It is a great testimony to a life spent in the service of the theatre and ranks right up there on the required reading list with Stanislavski, Brecht, Grotowski, Brook and Boal. In Toronto we know her legacy through the late George Luscombe (1926-1999) who worked with Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in the 1950s, touring the U.K. before returning to Toronto in 1959 and established Toronto Workshop Productions where, for 30 years, he mounted highly acclaimed productions such as Ten Lost Years, Les Canadiens and Ain't Lookin' which embraced the same populist, public theatre approach to playmaking that Littlewood leaned toward. Unapologetically political and leftwing, one might say that both Littlewood and Luscombe took what might have remained simple agit-prop ideas and turned them into dramatic art by endowing their plays with production values that emanated from an ensemble based presentational style that matured and coalesced into pertinent, compelling theatre. When dealing with the classical repertoire (as both often did) they ensured that the actor and the playwright took centre stage rather than the trickery of clever stagecraft or the sheen of expensive costume appliqué.
So good for Albert Schultz, artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre, for sensing that the time was right for a major revival of Littlewood's Oh! What A Lovely War just as the United States is putting pressure on Canada to extend its troop commitment in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 deadline currently set by Parliament, to remind us of the sheer folly of this war (as well as the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s that preceded it) and the spurious notion that the conflict could ever be settled by an increased military occupation in that part of the world.
The program notes for Oh! What A Lovely War recall that British theatrical treatments of warfare, up to the 1960s (the play debuted in 1963) were generally constructed as well-made plays containing much gravitas and the usual soul searching by military officers who were sent off on foreign assignments to "get the job done." Oh! What A Lovely War subverted all of these tropes by injecting a free flowing, almost improvisational musical hall style that parodied well known songs of the day and invented new lyrics wherever they saw fit. Combing this frivolity with the brutal statistics of World War I, along with serious descriptive narrative from sources such as Charles Chilton's The Long, Long Trail produced a chilling disconnect within audiences similar to the work of Brecht and Piscator.
Schultz effectively uses what is fast becoming de rigueur for musical theatre these days by deploying actors onto the stage who also act as musicians. Michael Hanrahan is a personable emcee for the evening (much in the mold of Ricky Gervais) and Oliver Dennis is a wonderfully pompous captain (among other roles) marching his troops off in all of the wrong directions. Strong work also coming from Raquel Duffy, Ryan Field, Alison Jutzi, Ins Choi, George Masswohl and Karen Rae with the musical direction of Marek Norman anchoring the overall exceptionally talented cast.
Savoini takes the whole commedia del arte motif
one step further with a thoughtfully designed generic harlequin style
costume/uniform worn by the entire company that only further visually
emphasizes the folly and futility of war.
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