Through October 13
OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR Royal George Theatre/Shaw Festival
Just over a century ago, the Canadian Army built the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake as part of a vast training base, preparing troops to go the bloodbath of the Western Front.
The war started badly and descended into military mass murder.
Decades later, Joan Littlewood, Charles Chilton and Theatre Workshop, decided to take a musical theater view of the run-up to World War I and the war, with “Oh What A Lovely War.”
The Shaw Festival decided bringing “The Great War” back to the Royal George was the way to go, along with mixing in some of Canada’s baggage, both from the war and the issues of getting French Canadians, Blacks and first nations to participate in the war and the aftermath.
The mix of the war and the excesses and abuses of history just clangs.
War often brings out underlying and hidden issues in a nation, as the U.S. learned in both world wars about African-Americans, as the U.S. military tried to have Black soldiers without actually using them in combat.
The needs of war and the casualty lists mixed cannon fodder needs and military segregation and changed some of that.
The Canadian situation was similar in WWI, along with the difficulties of persuading French Canadians to join in.
Director Peter Hinton has this show set in the Royal George way back then, as the show is designed.
It’s a music hall, with occasional excursions out into the audience and effective use of the doors, balcony and aisles.
Allan Louis is the chairman, the British music hall equivalent of the American MC.
The original producers split the show between the pre-combat and the hell of war, as the combatants learn the difference between the propaganda of training, “When Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser” or “I’ll Make a Man of You” and “Roses of Picardy” or “I Want to go Home.”
The reference to Picardy is interesting because that area of the Western Front is where wars have been fought for centuries, including the area of Agincourt where “Henry V” is set and in the Shaw production set in those World War I trenches.
The “Lovely War” show centers on one of the most controversial of the incompetent military leaders of World War I, a group filled by generals from both sides.
That’s Field Marshall Haig, the British commander, who kept telling his political masters that one last big push would end the war and he put on several of those big pushes, costing hundreds of thousands of soldiers their lives and not winning the war.
On the Somme, 60,000 Brits died the first day and the attack went on for months.
The show is so savage about Haig that his family tried to have the show ordered off the stage by the Lord Chancellor, then the official censor of entertainment.
Considering he had been a key figure in a book called “The Donkeys” the Haig family lost and the public won.
As with the original production back in the day, the cast of this production isn’t filled with great singers although the music doesn’t require it.
Probably more Canadians than Americans will recognize the music, songs like “The Maple Leaf Forever” or “Your King and Country” along with those background songs of the era, like “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kitbag,” “Roses of Picardy” and the lament in the trenches of “Keep the Home-Fires Burning” with its heart tugs at home.
There’s almost no one left in Britain from World War I, soldier or civilian, but the war lives on in the monuments, the memorials to those who died “For King and Country” and the list of the dead in so many small towns across the world, often names still surrounding them.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, just walk to the clock tower, which is actually a cenotaph for the dead, names of the local dead from World War I and II, still there a century after troops marched down Queen Street and to war.
Inside the Royal George, the musical echoes of that day are still there, of “I Want to Go Home.”
A strong cast, Louis and others, does a good job on Teresa Przybylski’s wondrous set.
It’s just that “Oh What A Lovely War” needs more connection from 21th Century social issues to the bloodbath of the 20th Century which ended the imperial 19th Century.
Sometimes, good intentions need crafts people to make it work.
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