Canada was created at Confederation, but Canadians didn’t come about until the First World War.
That’s the old origin story of this country and Soulpepper has dedicated its summer season to staging and questioning both parts of it – first in VideoCabaret’s Confederation plays, then in Billy Bishop Goes to War and Vern Thiessen’s Vimy.
Whereas the musical Billy Bishop focuses on a single Canadian who finds a way to fly above the trenches, Vimy brings us down into them and takes a more panoramic approach to our history.
Written for the 90th anniversary of the battle and frequently produced since, but only now getting its Toronto premiere, Thiessen’s play is set in a field hospital where four Canadians are recovering under the care of a Nova Scotian nurse named Clare (Christine Horne).
In April, 1917, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first time – and each gets a representative here. Sid (Tim Dowler-Coltman) and Will (TJ Riley) are English-Canadians from Manitoba and Ontario, respectively, who met before enlisting as labourers working on constructing the Winnipeg Aqueduct.
Jean-Paul (Sébastien Bertrand) is a butcher from Montreal, who signed up in an attempt to move up from his circumscribed station in life as a French Canadian. And Mike (Wesley French) is a scout from the Kainai Nation in Alberta, who enlisted along with his brother after seeing a vision of battle in the Northern Lights.
Clare’s mind, meanwhile, keeps wandering and bringing memories of her fiancé Laurie (Andrew Chown) into the room – a Nova Scotia Highlander who was also involved in the attack on Vimy Ridge.
You can definitely feel the boxes being checked by the playwright: each region of the country, English, French, Indigenous. Likewise, the conversations are filled with the most conspicuous of Cancon – the famous “rolling barrage” tactic used at Vimy Ridge is compared to paddling a canoe, while the soldiers squabble about hockey and the Stanley Cup. An actual line of dialogue is: “Canadians, eh?”
If this attempt to bring as much of Canada, circa 1917, into one room as possible feels a little manufactured, though, it goes to the question at the heart of Thiessen’s play: whether Brigadier-General Alexander Ross’s contention that in watching Canadians from the Atlantic to the Pacific fight together that day he “witnessed the birth of a nation” is history or myth.
While the coast-to-coast diversity of the dramatis personae in Thiessen’s play shores up the idea that we bonded over a shared trauma that day, the form of the play actually suggests a fracturing. None of the soldiers can remember what happened during the battle at first – but memories start to burst into the room where they convalesce.
There is a sizable, straightforward section of the play dedicated to showing how the Canadian Corps prepared for and won the battle – but the scenes that follow seem to come out of nowhere, disconnected one from the next, sometimes circling back.
Director Diana Leblanc’s production emphasizes the latent expressionism in the script – designer André du Toit’s lighting streaming in from either side of the stage, or up through the floor of the wooden sloping set designed by Astrid Janson.
In the beautiful opening image, Clare and Laurie appear to be suspended in mid-air, flickering like the projection of an old black-and-white movie.
While Vimy is fine as a dramatization of history Canadians should know, it’s less than successful as a drama. Oddly enough, given its setting, it’s missing a crucial element: conflict. There are minor skirmishes or misunderstandings among the men, but ultimately they all get along and succeed in their objective.
Billy Bishop is a stronger work of art because it asks us to question whether the title character is a hero or a psychopath, or if there’s a difference between the two in war; and it implicitly challenges the nation-building narrative of the war, through its individualistic focus and by showing how colonial celebrity could be used for imperial ends.
Thiessen’s soldiers, by contrast, may be well-researched – but the characterization rarely rises above those checked boxes. Only shell-shocked Jean-Paul fully came alive for me through Bertrand’s heightened performance, his terrifying trembling hands – although the relationship between East Coasters Clare and Laurie is also nicely drawn in short strokes by Horne and Chown.
And yet, the romance doesn’t quite pull at the heartstrings as hard as another Alberta play about the First World War, Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding, while the hint of the homoerotic elsewhere in Thiessen’s play seems timid compared to Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel The Wars.
Thiessen’s attempt to do it all and include everyone is admirable, but it has a downside – and there’s no getting away from it: He’s up against a barrage of Canadian literature for the shelf and the stage that’s explored this war and the meaning of it.Report Typo/Error