ETER­NAL LESSONS OF WAR

Sto­ries brought to life through po­etry, drama and paint­ings have be­come time­less

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - LIANE FAUL­DER lfaul­der@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/eat­my­words­blog

John Hud­son, artis­tic di­rec­tor at Shadow The­atre, holds a pho­to­graph of his great un­cle Wil­son Hat­field who died dur­ing the First World War. Shadow The­atre’s pro­duc­tion of The Com­edy Com­pany, a true story about the mem­bers of the Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry, runs un­til Sun­day, Re­mem­brance Day, at the Varscona.

Ev­ery Re­mem­brance Day, the ranks of those who sit at war memo­ri­als, blan­kets tucked around their legs in wheelchairs, grow ever more thin.

There are no vet­er­ans of the First World War left. Of the more than one mil­lion Cana­di­ans who served full-time in the Sec­ond World War, less than 50,000 re­main.

So much has changed since those mighty bat­tles. Mod­ern folk can barely imag­ine life with­out cell­phones, never mind ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­pe­ri­ence of a young sol­dier forced to run mes­sages be­tween mil­i­tary out­posts — one of the most dan­ger­ous and ter­ri­fy­ing roles in the First World War.

This is why war sto­ries brought to life through art — from po­etry to the­atre to paint­ings — are ever more im­por­tant. As the real peo­ple fade from view, sto­ries that touch our hearts are the only way to keep those real-life ex­pe­ri­ences, and their lessons, alive.

This felt clear to me while watch­ing two plays about the First World War on stage in Ed­mon­ton un­til Nov. 11. Both plays brought war home at a vis­ceral level, one I don’t get tun­ing into The Na­tional for my nightly up­date on world­wide con­flict.

The first play is Shadow The­atre’s The Com­edy Com­pany, play­ing at the Varscona. Play­wright Neil Grahn found the true story of a com­edy com­pany formed to en­ter­tain Cana­dian troops dur­ing the First World War while he was re­search­ing a film about the Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry. Wildly suc­cess­ful, the com­edy com­pany was in­vited to ap­pear be­fore the Queen and King. Af­ter the war, their show went to Broad­way.

When Grahn told his good friend, Shadow’s artis­tic di­rec­tor John Hud­son, about the story, Hud­son com­mis­sioned a play timed to co­in­cide with the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War.

“I’ve al­ways had a deep affin­ity for both world wars,” said Hud­son.

Hud­son’s fa­ther fought in the Sec­ond World War. At the age of 16 un­der a false name, Hud­son’s great un­cle Wil­son Hat­field signed up for the First World War. When his mother found out, she tried to have him re­leased, but was un­suc­cess­ful. Hat­field, to whom The Com­edy Com­pany is ded­i­cated, died in the Bat­tle of the Somme in 1916.

“It was a loss the fam­ily never fully re­cov­ered from,” said Hud­son. “It was some­thing that touched all.”

A photo of Hat­field still hangs in Hud­son’s house. His story is printed in the di­rec­tor’s notes of the play­bill for The Com­edy Com­pany.

When I watched the show, I noted one char­ac­ter in par­tic­u­lar, a pi­anist named Leonard, played by Nick Samoil. Leonard wasn’t Wil­son, but in my the­atre mind, where thoughts and feel­ings roam freely dur­ing pro­duc­tions, Leonard felt like Wil­son. His face was so young, un­lined and openly beau­ti­ful. I imag­ined that was what Wil­son looked like, and felt a con­nec­tion to his par­ents, and to all those par­ents who have lost chil­dren in war, then and now.

There is no un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the power and im­por­tance of that con­nec­tion. As Hud­son puts it, “we have to keep re­mind­ing our­selves that we have to be bet­ter as hu­man be­ings.”

The Com­edy Com­pany pro­vides that re­minder, as does the Citadel’s Red­patch. Co-writ­ten by Van­cou­ver’s Raes Calvert, who plays the lead role of Half­Blood, the play is about a young, mixed-blood First Na­tions sol­dier.

Calvert’s In­dige­nous grand­fa­ther fought in the Sec­ond World War, but Calvert hadn’t heard men­tion of the In­dige­nous con­tri­bu­tion to the world wars in high school his­tory books (he’s now 31). Re­search re­vealed that in the First World War, 4,000 In­dige­nous men en­listed, giv­ing up their treaty sta­tus to do so. Calvert won­dered why those sol­diers wanted to fight in the first place.

“What were they ex­pect­ing and what did it turn out to be?” he asked.

Here’s where the war story in­ter­sects with an­other im­por­tant story, as all the best tales do. Calvert posits that a lot of In­dige­nous sol­diers came from a “line of war­riors.”

“In a lot of ways, it of­fered them an op­por­tu­nity to prove them­selves, and to be seen as equals,” said Calvert.

He notes au­di­ence mem­bers say Red­patch helped them see the war through a dif­fer­ent lens, one that wasn’t fo­cused on the tra­di­tional western Eu­ro­pean per­spec­tive. In it­self, that’s a great out­come. There are many, many sto­ries to be shared, and in that shar­ing, much to be learned.

Calvert says per­for­mance art has a crit­i­cal role to play in war re­mem­brance, call­ing it “a huge plat­form” through which to ex­plore his­tory.

“There is a line in Red­patch, ‘No mat­ter where you go, you are where you come from.’ That, for me, is the truth, and it’s a way to con­nect to our his­tory, whether it is some­thing great or tragic

... to not rec­og­nize that leads to tragic things hap­pen­ing again and again.”

The­atre is my favourite of the art forms, and it’s not too late to see The Com­edy Com­pany or Red­patch. But there are other ways to ex­pe­ri­ence a sol­dier’s story on or about Nov. 11.

Over at the Univer­sity of Al­berta’s fine arts build­ing un­til Dec. 1, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Allen Ball has an ex­hibit called Paint­ing in the State of Ex­cep­tion: Doc­u­ments of Con­tem­po­rary War. The show is based on Ball’s jour­ney to the north­ern Si­nai in 2007 as an of­fi­cial war artist.

On Re­mem­brance Day, as part of the Bells of Peace ini­tia­tive, hand­bell ringers from Robert­son-Wes­ley United will ring a bell 100 times at sunset (about 4:43 p.m.). Watch for them, weather per­mit­ting, out­side the church on the cor­ner of 102 Av­enue and 123 Street. If it’s too cold, they’ll be just in­side the church cor­ner doors.

Project Heroes — an ex­hibit at the Prince of Wales Ar­mouries — uses por­traits and larger paint­ings to hon­our Cana­dian sol­diers who died in Afghanistan. Also, the home­com­ing mu­ral painted by Kris Friesen on the side of the Nor­wood Le­gion is both mov­ing and eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble.

LARRY WONG

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