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Monday, 11 July 2011

Review: Vimy - mired in a no-man’s land of amiguity

Directed by Eric Coates

The story: In a field hospital in France four soldiers wounded at Vimy Ridge recount to their nurse how they came to be part of one of the most famous battles in Canadian WWI history, and reveal how the experience will forever change their futures.

With two family members serving in Canada’s Armed Forces and a strong respect for our military history, I expected to feel nostalgic, or patriotic at the play’s end. It is doubtful that on seeing this production anyone unfamiliar with Vimy’s role in Canadian history will attach any more significance to it. But, it turns out, patriotism and Canada’s history are not really the point of Vimy.

The play is about the individuals – Vimy Ridge is just their setting. The four soldiers and their nurse all come from different parts of Canada, and have different backgrounds, educations, religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Each one joins “the cause” of the war for different reasons: For country. To become a warrior. For a different life. To escape. To follow.  They are a cross-section of Canadian people that in joining a bigger cause get thrown together where they might otherwise never have met - they are concentrated at one particular battle, a battle that comes to define their nation for a time – not that they will realize that for some time. But as individuals, each character remains as isolated as before, maybe more so, by the circumstances that each faces as they ready for the battle of Vimy Ridge, and from its results. As one character puts it – Vimy will forever be the “mess… stuck inside”. Each character remembers this mess both collectively and differently; this is what the playwright examines.

Memory is often slippery, and Thiessen plays with memory in a circular way. Each character is brought to the fore, slips into his past before the war, comes back to the present, and eventually each character’s story becomes bound to the others. Perhaps this is why the play felt more theatrical, and less gritty than one might expect.

Sebastien David and Meegwun Fairbrother are in particular memorable as Jean Paul Metivier and Mike Goodstriker.  And as usual Blyth manages to convey a great deal of landscape with a set of simplicity and imagination. The direction does get confused between the individual and an anti-war message from time to time though, and some of the performances are slightly ambiguous.  The second half of the play – particularly those parts where the soldiers are remembering the planning stages for Vimy – are more real, more visceral and therefore more moving than the more poetical first half.  One just wishes the same passion could have been carried throughout the rest of the play.

There is no doubt that our veterans and military families will find much to relate to and identify with in this production of Vim, I am just not sure how much a wider audience can take away from it. Just as Thiessen demonstrates how memory is slippery, there is an undefinable something that is missing in this production of Vimy; be it the fault of the playwright or director, it is hard to tell.

Vimy continues at the Blyth Festival until August 6, 2011.

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