When folks just catching on to her work ask me what Hannah Moscovitch’s best play is, my default answer is This is War, a drama about four Canadian soldiers set during our long war in Afghanistan, which she premiered at Tarragon Theatre in 2013.
It’s a testament to Moscovitch’s uncommon and ever increasing profile as a Canadian playwright that I have been asked this question not infrequently inside and outside of the country – and that I’ve needed a ready response at hand.
But as time has moved on from Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose’s original production of This is War, Canada’s long mission in Afghanistan has become even murkier in my mind. And while the prolific Ottawa-raised, Halifax-based playwright’s output has multiplied and continued to impress, I have started to worry I’ve put too much stock in this Toronto Theatre Critics Award-winning script (which also, in its published edition by Playwrights Canada Press, was the first play to ever win the Trillium Book Award). I based my opinion, after all, on 90 minutes in a darkened room that are receding ever deeper into memory.
I am grateful, therefore, that Tarragon Theatre has given me an opportunity to revisit This is War as a part of Tarragon Acoustic – the Toronto theatre company’s season of audio recordings of plays from its history (and future), a pandemic pivot to pay-for-play podcasts. (Each recording costs $12.50 a pop to access online, and a subscription through to the end of May costs $152.)
The new audio version of This is War, available until Nov. 8 through the Tarragon website, reunites Rose with the excellent original cast: Lisa Berry as Master Corporal Tanya Young. Ari Cohen as Sergeant Stephen Hughes, Ian Lake as Private Jonny Henderson, and Sergio Di Zio as combat medic Chris Anders.
The play is structured as a series of interviews that these four soldiers are giving to a journalist – one of those unseen and unheard listeners that Moscovitch’s guilt-ridden characters have been compelled to explain their actions to in plays from East of Berlin (2007) to Bunny (2016).
What distinguishes This is War, however, from much of Moscovitch’s oeuvre is that its protagonists are not naturally given to monologue – and, in fact, actively resist giving straight answers to the off-stage journalist, who is investigating something that happened at a Taliban bunker during a joint operation between the Canadian Forces and the Afghan National Army in Panjwaii circa 2007.
So to fill in the gaps in information, the audience is also pulled into the memories of the soldiers, and our understanding of what happened in the sleepless night before and the morning leading up to the operation is gradually expanded with each dramatized flashback.
What I admired most about This is War when I first saw it was the thickness of its plot, and it still feels like a miniseries worth of mystery compressed into a 90-minute drama, with Moscovitch crafting a myriad of terrible ways for compassionate acts to turn out to have tragic consequences.
There is the question of what happened in the bunker to pull you in, but also a love triangle of sorts between Tanya, who pretends to be more jaded than she really is, Stephen, a caring but reflexively manipulative leader, and Jonny, who is naive and, at just 20 years old, still discovering whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.
This three-sided entanglement is problematic, and not only because of Canadian Forces rules against fraternization. Trauma informs the characters' actions, owing to violent deaths they have been involved in or been witness to; it can be hard to tell whether their behaviour is motivated by actual feelings or simply an attempt to feel anything at all. (Chris, the Christian medic played by Di Zio, often checks in to make sure the others are not getting “a little numbed out.”)
The depth of Moscovitch’s knowledge of the Canadian Forces, the war in Afghanistan and PTSD is obvious (she also wrote for the CBC Radio drama Afghanada), but never made obvious. Her ending is expertly unsettling, aided and abetted by Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design here, as in the original production.
Hopefully more Tarragon Acoustic episodes, which are only rehearsed for a few hours before being recorded, will reunite original casts such as this one. You can tell the actors have spent a long time with these characters from the rich performances (which include a particularly wrenching one from Lake).
The first of the Tarragon Acoustic recordings (Leaving Home) sounded like one where the cast did not quite have enough time to jell, while the last two (carried away on the crest of a wave and Léo) have been repackaged versions of previous recordings available for free elsewhere. (That was unusual: All but one of the remaining 14 recordings will be new, according to Tarragon.)
While I suspect most of those subscribing to this project are simply trying to support a favourite theatre in tough times, This is War is the first of the theatre’s pandemic podcasts that I feel comfortable saying, to anyone, is worth paying for on its own dramatic merits. Moscovitch’s brilliant play definitely rewarded a return visit, much to my relief.
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.