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A scene from "Little Iliad" (Annika Johansson)
A scene from "Little Iliad" (Annika Johansson)

Theatre

Canadian theatre finally takes on the Afghan war Add to ...

During the decade that Canadian soldiers spent fighting and dying in places like Kandahar and Kabul, our theatre creators were noticeably quiet about the Afghan elephant in the room. It was almost as if they'd been warned: Don't mention the war.

Indeed, back in 2008, after a series of plays about Iraq hit the stage in Toronto, I wrote a column asking: “Isn't it about time Canadian playwrights, directors and actors started grappling with a war their fellow countrymen are actually playing a role in?”

Well, now that the Canadian Forces’ combat activities in Afghanistan have finally come to a close, that time is at hand.

The next 12 months will see the premiere of more plays inspired by Canada's involvement in the NATO-led mission than we have seen in the past 10 years.

Following Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O'Connell's ice breaker, Little Iliad, currently playing at Vancouver's Anderson Street Space, the upcoming theatre season will see no fewer than three major works on the subject: George F. Walker's Dead Metaphor, about an Afghanistan War vet returning to home to North America; Hannah Moscovitch's This Is War, a fictionalized version of a real incident involving Canadian Forces in 2008; and Christopher Morris and Jonathan Garfinkel's Petawawa, an ambitious international collaboration that aims to dramatize the effects of the war on all sides.

Coming as they do after Canada's withdrawal of its 2,850 combat troops, these upcoming plays cannot be dismissed as mere anti-war agitprop, as many of the British and American plays of the last decade have been. In fact, rather than simply being about the politics of the mission, all of the plays have been inspired and informed by the playwrights' experiences of having friends and family fight and even die in Afghanistan.

In Walker's instance, his sister's son did two tours of duty with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. During his nephew's deployments, the Governor-General's Award-winning playwright and screenwriter kept in close contact with his sister and was struck by how intensely stressful the war was for her, while most of her neighbours in British Columbia went about their lives largely oblivious to it.

“It's a war that a handful of young people and their families are involved in – that's really a big change from the two world wars, for example,” says Walker, whose darkly comic play Dead Metaphor will have its world premiere under the direction of Irene Lewis in San Francisco in January, 2013, before coming home to Toronto's Factory Theatre later that winter.

Right before Moscovitch took on the job as head writer on the CBC Radio drama series Afghanada a few years ago, she discovered that she was about to have a close personal connection to the war she'd be writing about as well.

Out of the blue, her high-school sweetheart – who she'd prefer not to name – sent her a message that he was about to be deployed with the Canadian Forces; he was writing to all the people he had loved in his life before going overseas. “That was a shock,” the playwright of the hit East of Berlin recalls.

The renewed relationship turned out to be helpful to her radio gig, however – and again as she's been writing This Is War, which premieres at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre next winter then moves to Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange. Whenever her old beau comes home to Canada – he's still over there – Moscovitch plies him for information that she wouldn't have the courage to ask the many military consultants who advised on Afghanada. (That six-season series from CBC Radio's recently cut drama division was the source of employment of an astonishing number of young Canadian playwrights, including Brendan Gall, Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman and Nicolas Billon.)

“I can get really personal and ask questions that are rude, like: What is it like to kill someone?” says Moscovitch (who also adds that her decision to write This Is War was partially inspired by my 2008 column).

Playwright and actor Evan Webber also found dramatic inspiration after a surprise contact by a childhood chum who had joined the Canadian Forces. After they reconnected over Facebook, Webber was struck by the gap between his friend's life and his own working in avant-garde theatre in Toronto; his play is a fictionalized version of a Skype conversation between the soldier and the civilian, during which the story of Sophocles’s play Philoctetes is also told.

“We started Little Iliad in response to the situation that I was in, realizing that I had a friend who was potentially going to be fighting in the war,” says Webber, who recently performed the show at Toronto's World Stage. “The life of that show, however, was such that by the time we were premiering the show in Ireland, that's when Canada’s war was declared concluded.”

Petawawa creator Christopher Morris has been deeply touched by the Afghanistan war during his research and development of the play over the past four years. He has interviewed Canadian soldiers and their families in a Tim Hortons on the Canadian Forces base in Petawawa, Ont., as well as travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to speak to, for example, the widow of a Taliban commander.

But the violence of the region became particularly personalized when the husband of actress Parwin Mushtahel, one of Morris's Afghan collaborators, was shot dead outside her home; Morris was one of the first people she called after the murder.

Not surprisingly, Morris had wanted his play to go up on stage as soon as possible. Despite his track record as a creator, and in-depth media coverage of Petawawa's genesis, however, the only theatre so far to have expressed interest is Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects, which will premiere the piece as part of its Enbridge playRites Festival next winter.

If Canadian companies shied away from addressing the war in Afghanistan directly while the combat mission was still on, Morris believes it was part of a nationwide averting of eyes from examining the conflict too closely. “There's a feeling, I feel, that it's very unpatriotic to discuss anything to do with the war,” he says. “We barely had a debate about the war in our government.”

In other countries involved with the NATO mission, however, playwrights have been very active over the past decade writing about the post-9/11 wars.

Well-known figures such as Tony Kushner and David Hare have written plays about Afghanistan and Iraq, while American playwright Rajiv Joseph made it to Broadway with his drama Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (in a production that starred Robin Williams).

The Great Game, a 12-hour cycle of plays about the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, made an international reputation for London's Tricycle Theatre, while Gregory Burke's Black Watch did the same for the nascent National Theatre of Scotland.

George F. Walker, whose work has always been more personal than political, is skeptical of plays written in the fog of war, however. “In any war, the plays start coming out because it's a hot subject or something – and it all seems kind of immoral in a way to me,” he says.

“I don't want to write about anything because it's hot. ... It's probably a good thing that it's taken this long.”

Webber maintains that the conflict had to wind down for theatre artists to really be able to be heard and seen over the din of all the news images and video coming directly from Afghanistan, while Moscovitch suggests that the wind-down of the war has allowed Canadian playwrights to examine the bigger picture. “You can see the war as a whole now,” she muses, then dismisses the thought: “That's romantic. It's probably just that it takes a long time to develop plays.”

Morris, meanwhile, makes the point that the war is far from over – certainly not for the Afghans, and not for the 950 Canadian Forces personnel still deployed on a training mission.

“This war lasts for generations and it’s going to affect us for generations,” he says. “We have to begin a dialogue with it sooner or later.”

Indeed – and, in the case of Canadian theatre, better late, than never.

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