Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) This is War

Ian Lake and Lisa Berry (photo by Bruce Monk)

The Conversation of Silence
by Edgar Governo

Canada is a country fixated on its own past.

As a nation, we have never become very adept at discussing contemporary issues because we're constantly trying to look at everything through a historical lens. Our government would rather dwell on the War of 1812 than focus on any current conflict—but the rest of us are no better, complaining that the movie Argo doesn't give Canada enough credit while virtually ignoring the presence of Canadian soldiers in a Muslim country right now. Wars are always something taking place Over There, or which took place Long Ago.

Those four characters, soldiers connected to a particular violent incident during their tours, tell the story of that incident in a series of overlapping flashbacks.

This is War attempts to jump-start the conversation Canadians aren't having about our role in Afghanistan. High-profile Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, no stranger to historical settings in previous works such as The Russian Play and The Children's Republic, crafts a thoroughly contemporary drama  just as Canada is winding down its presence in Afghanistan and trying as hard as it can not to get involved in an all-too-similar quagmire in Mali. Before the play begins, the audience is surrounded by desert camouflage and the sounds of distant gunfire—you have no choice but to become immersed in the setting—but in a move that seems to acknowledge the tension in Canada's sense of history, the main plot of the play itself is told retrospectively to an unseen, unheard interviewer. Even within a narrative that could be happening today, the story is already something that happened in the past for its characters.

Those four characters, soldiers connected to a particular violent incident during their tours, tell the story of that incident in a series of overlapping flashbacks. This isn't intended to create a Rashomon effect, where you don't know whose story to believe in the end or a sudden revelation changes everything, but rather adds layers of detail and nuance to earlier scenes over the course of the play's tightly-structured 90 minutes. Although each of the four becomes a three-dimensional person, the core character is ultimately Master Corporal Tanya Young (Lisa Berry), forced to balance feelings of duty, discipline, trauma, compassion, and loneliness,  while dealing with the attentions and agendas of fellow infantrymen Captain Stephen Hughes (John Cleland) and Private Jonny Henderson (Ian Lake) and deflecting the concerns of medic Sergeant Chris Anders (Brendan Murray). Berry no doubt uses her previous experience in this type of military role as Captain Pam Everwood in the Canadian television series Combat Hospital to her advantage in convincingly portraying a member of the Canadian Forces caught in circumstances without any clear resolution.

By comparison, the specific arcs of the other characters feel more like subplots, though there is a strong undercurrent for all of them about the need for sexual release and personal connection in the field which can blur the lines of rank, relationship, and even orientation. In the Playwright's Notes included with the programme, Moscovitch refers to making "the call you think you can live with" in the context of combat, but this extends to other choices made by these four characters in the heat of the moment—regardless of the reason for the heat.

Each character faces turning points where their decisions could change (or end) lives, but every possibility will lead to something horrible. John Cleland plays Captain Hughes as fiercely loyal to his troops, but also selfish. Ian Lake portrays Private Henderson as mostly naïve, despite claiming he can be cold and hard. Brendan Murray's Sergeant Anders tries to placate everyone around him, though his later take on the play's central incident shows the limits of his sympathy.

Those of us in a country like Canada, depending on our viewpoint, will often attempt to simplify war as either a heroic necessity or a needless atrocity, but This Is War defies either category and resists such easy definitions. War is instead a series of impossible choices and vague goals: What is victory against an insurgent group in Afghanistan? Who constitutes the enemy in that conflict? Multiple references to the Geneva Conventions in the play remind us that groups like the Taliban aren't concerned with modern rules of engagement or delineations of military versus civilian imposed by outsiders.

Moscovitch is inviting Canadians as a whole to think and talk about how this is war. It's easier to look at war as history, a story that is finished and which happened to someone else, but the war in Afghanistan doesn't provide a simple image of Canadian identity that can be neatly summed up in a Heritage Minute. In the theatre of war, performances are ongoing.

This Is War runs to March 10 at Prairie Theatre Exchange

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