Artistic Director Tim Carroll programmed the 2018 Shaw season with a throughline of war stories, mostly World War I stories. The theme is so pervasive that it seems to divide the season pretty much down the middle, so that’s how I’ve decided to group the plays together- War & Peace. Read about the season’s civilian stories HERE and read on for the report from the trenches.

Henry V
I loved this. Would I be happy if it was the only production of Henry V I’d ever seen? No, because the frame device (a group of soldiers rehearse in the trenches of WWI) overwhelms the plot to the point where Shakespeare’s play is pretty impossible to follow. But Shakespeare’s work is 400 years old and produced more than any other theatrical works in the entire world, let’s play with it a bit. By making Henry V a play-within-the-play and showing us the characters rehearsing rather than performing, co-directors Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll are able to break down the text and have their soldier characters break Shakespearean character to question and explain the play as they go. Ric Reid’s hilarious, delightfully grumpy soldier refuses to play the Archbishop of Canterbury, which allows us to skip over the play’s debilitatingly boring first scenes and replace them with a simple plot explanation from Graeme Somerville, whose soldier character is the sort of Peter Quince-ian conductor of these affairs. Julia Course‘s gung-ho nurse character asks very helpful clarifying questions when trying to help with the scenes where the king is in disguise. The ensemble is the season’s best, an across-the-board compelling group of thoughtful, grounded performers who live in the text rather than attempting to live up to it. The frame doesn’t totally hold up- there are plenty of times when it’s impossible not to ask “why are they doing this?” and some of the more ambitious bits of interplay between the soldiers outside of their Shakespearean roles (most notably a short but dramatic nod to potential PTSD) ring hollow when the text doesn’t have space for the dynamics to play out fully. But, putting aside some of its mechanical flaws, the big swing frame Bennett and Carroll have applied to the text unlocks key moments in really profound ways. The omnipresence of war’s consequences totally recontextualizes the St. Crispin’s Day speech, delivered by Gray Powell with pointed half-hearted melancholy rather than as the glorious battle cry it so famously has always been. No one in the company, least of all Cameron Grant to whom they are directed, leaves the Harfleur scene unaffected by hearing Henry’s brutal threats spoken aloud. Powell brings a really affecting sadness to Henry, punctuated beautifully by moments when his comrades playing a funny subplot are able to make him laugh as he listens from his corner of the cramped trench where act one plays out. Damien Atkins lifts the weight of the world off all his fellow soldiers when he takes on the role of Katherine, who speaks all of her dialogue in french. He’s interrupted by the war crashing in on their play-acted war and therein lies the beauty of this interpretation. As a Henry V, it’s incomplete and confusing, but that’s because this play is more than just Henry V.

Oh What a Lovely War
Though dated, as all festival musicals are apparently cursed to be, this inventive Joan Littlewood show that strings together stories and songs from WWI to form a sophisticated commentary on the costs of war is a wonderful, risky piece of programming that anchors the season-long story being told about the “great war”. Peter Hinton is the perfect choice of director because the best way for this show to have failed would be direction that played it safe and didn’t lean into the text’s boundary pushing roots; I don’t think Peter Hinton has ever played it safe in his life. His work here is inventive and ambitious, using Howard J Davis’ projections and a few pianos as his only set pieces but creating something that feels at once gigantic and deeply intimate. The cast is excellent, as are the textual adaptations that refocus elements of the storytelling on the Canadian experience, highlighted by Allan Louis’ stirring turn as a black soldier fighting for his right to fight. Oh What A Lovely War is a hard watch- it’s odd and intellectual and necessarily bleak- but its rewards are remarkable.

O’Flaherty VC
I didn’t get much from this mostly forgettable comedy about a returning Irish soldier attempting to explain to his mother that he earned the Victoria Cross fighting with not against the English. The premise is incredibly rich but neither Shaw’s text nor Kimberley Rampersad’s direction do much delving into the layers of hurt and conflict and guilt that make the scenario psychologically intriguing. This is the lunchtime one-act and it’s treated as such, all light hijinks that can’t possibly spoil your appetite.

Of Marriage & Men
One-acts really aren’t this season’s strong point, this double feature joining the lunchtime as arguably the most forgettable plays at the festival this year (there are worse criticisms than forgettable, for that I encourage you to keep reading, but it’s still not what you hope for). The first of this pair of second string Shaw texts How He Lied to Her Husband is a cute drawing room comedy that’s essentially Shaw writing an entirely new play as an excuse to talk about an old one (Candida, the characters won’t shut up about it). The Man of Destiny, a misunderstanding comedy starring Kelly Wong as Napoleon, is a tad more interesting but still not much more than silly. The real stars here are Steve Lucas (set and lighting) and Tamara Marie Kucheran (costumes) whose design work on both plays is lush, lovely, atmospheric and practical.

Grand Hotel
I hated this. Like, really really hated it. My take on uninspired musical programming (and boy has there been a lot of it at the big festivals lately) is generally “well, that was stupid but at least it was well-executed and fun”. This is neither well-executed nor fun, which is odd because it has a good cast and a great director. The music is dull, the characters are generally impossible to root for, and the story is either stupid or straight up disturbing (poor Jay Turvey, I doubt I’ll ever be able to look at him the same way again). James Daly is charming enough as the Baron von Gaigern and Deborah Hay fares well with her tricky ageing ballerina character but only Michael Therriault as Otto (apparently the one good guy in all the world) managed to make me actually root for him. Matt Nethersole gives a star turn as Jimmy and his numbers with Kiera Sangster are definitely show stoppers, I just wished it wouldn’t have started up again.