By Dennis Garnhum. Based on the novel by Timothy Findley. Directed by Lois Anderson. A Department of Theatre and Film at UBC production. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Friday, November 8. Continues until November 23
In a place of widespread suffering, what perspectives can be drawn from individual torment, and do they bring insights into the wider theatre of horrors? In Dennis Garnhum’s stage adaptation of Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, one man tries to make sense of his life within the carnage of a senseless world. Encountering the trench warfare of World War I, amid fresh memories of a personal loss, 2nd Lieut. Robert Ross is faced with questions about worth and sacrifice.
Robert (David Volpov), a 19-year-old Torontonian, has suffered a recent death in the family—his older sister, Rowena (Hana Cripton-Inglis), has died suddenly in a tragic accident. Estranged from his mother (Laura Reynolds) and still reeling from this event, Robert enlists in the Canadian Army to distract himself from his bleak psyche, shipping off to Alberta for basic training. There, he meets a motley group of fellow recruits, from the amiable Purchas (Nicco Graham) to the timid Levitt (Aidan LeBlanc). Led by captains Taffler (Drew Ogle) and Leather (Caleb Pleasure), the soldiers are quickly dropped onto the frontlines of Belgium, where the war rages.
Animals occupy a sizable role in Findley’s novel, which Garnhum faithfully retains for the stage. Their fates, most vividly represented by a stable of horses caught in a blazing inferno, are a perfect metaphor for Robert: waylaid by life’s caprice, he discovers that aspects of his reality are beyond his control. Finding kinship with both their innocence and helplessness, he realizes that a degree of senseless action permeates life in wartime and otherwise: his inability to save Rowena or her rabbits from death is matched by his inability to save some of his fellow soldiers and their horses. Similarly, Robert’s desire for autonomy is frustrated by an irrational, controlling captain, much as his decisions at home were challenged by an overbearing mother. Disobeying orders to rescue animals, whose distress he identifies with, becomes almost therapeutic, as a point of penance or empowerment.
Director Lois Anderson has a wonderful economy about her theatrical staging, employing tactile, elementary components to create an incomparable liveness on an open-plan stage.
Through Cecilia Vadala’s scenic design, the hostility of natural elements and man-made destruction are given weight by jets of thick fog and a stage-sized beige canvas. Acting as a fulcrum for scene changes, this single stretch of fabric conjures up in turn a churning sea, waterlogged dike, and yawning crater. Sound designer Zachary Levis devises live audio effects with on-site instruments like bar chimes and a thunder sheet, while recorded classics by composers Morris Manley and Edward Elgar play to contextualize history. Lighting designer Matthew Piton blasts the mise en scène with the colours of the ocean, a conflagration, and chlorine gas.
With a likeness between Robert’s life at home and abroad, a semblance of closure emerges; although guilt inevitably remains, he has come to understand that senselessness occurs. Like the animals in the story, it is not unusual to be defenseless or in a state of compromise, but given that, he has also gleaned redemption in a newfound courage against adversity.