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[personal profile] jsburbidge
In the summer of 1979 or 1980 - I'm not sure which, though diligent research could determine the question - I walked across the river from my parents' house at Trent's Champlain College to Wenjack Theatre to see the original production of Billy Bishop Goes To War.

On this past Saturday I went down to the Distillery District in Toronto, to a theatre not yet built when I saw the original production, to see Grey and Peterson's updated version of the same play. In between it has become an iconic Canadian play (far more so than it's elder sibling[1] 1837: The Farmers' Revolt, also being revived this summer at Shaw) and the perspectives of both audience and actors has changed.

In 1978, when the play was first performed, Canada's most recent combat which had not been incidental to a UN peacekeeping mission had been in the early 1950s. Britain, though post-imperial, was neverthess pre-Thatcher. Although the play was about war, what it spoke about to audiences was more strongly the colonial/imperial dialogue. (There were still plenty of people alive, like my grandparents (all living at the time) who had been grown adults when the Statute of Westminster was passed in 1931.) Now we're more likely to focus on the personal reactions, the skirting/escaping PTSD aspects of getting through that number of high-stress missions.

In parallel, the ageing of the actors has been accompanied by a deliberated transformation of the perspective of the play, a change from a capturing of the young, post-war soldier's autobiography (Winged Warfare, the source for much of the material, dates from 1918) to an old man's reminiscences (or perhaps those of his shade: Peterson is now older than Bishop was when he died). Transitions are more gradual, depictions a little more settled and less energetic; the risk a sense, at the beginning, of memories being dredged up.

(Personally, I think the play's subversive centre of gravity comes towards the very end, in "The Empire Soirée", with the world-weary possibility that all of this was, in the end, irrelevant, a minor bump on the road in the continuing churn of national and imperial powers, the Untergang des Abenländes; that the resignation of the English, willing to have their heroes dead, is a recognition of a zero-sum game populated by elegiac or tragic stories.)

All in all, it's a worthwhile performance.

[1]Grey and Peterson were at Theatre Passe Muraille when they came up with the idea for the play; Salutin's play was an earlier product of TPM.


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