Oh, What a Lovely War! is a piercing anti-war musical first devised and performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1963, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of The Great War. In her introduction to the play Littlewood writes that, “This is not a conventional play, and it will not come alive if treated as such.”
And indeed, War! is a play which asks many things of its performers, not the least of which is a Brechtian approach that demands a distance between the actors and audience; the actors are not portrayed as individual characters the audience may connect with, but rather as embodiments and extensions of larger concept. In one of his essays, Brecht writes that, “the actor is bound not to bring about [...] empathy”, and Phil Arnold’s director’s note for this production echoes this notion by urging us as an audience to “not feel any sentimentality”. Knowing this, the London Community Players must first be commended for having the courage to tackle this beast of the modern theatre, as the prospect of performing any piece of theatre in the style of Brecht is enough to scare away many less experienced companies.
After seeing the LCP production on the 25th, Kat dos Santos and Jonas Trottier put their heads together to get to the bottom of where this production left them.
Jonas: So, you came into this production fresh—having not yet read the script, or read up too much on the play itself. What were your thoughts after seeing the cast come out in their Pierrot costumes and singing that first number?
Kat: The ensemble worked really well together, the energy they exuded offered a stark contrast to the newsreel positioned above them, and I think this emphasized the dissonance between the realities of the war and the sentiments of the people of this time. Told from the perspective of Allies, they gestured towards the varying populations with an effective use of stereotypes and accents. The Pierrot costumes were adorned with only slight differences for each actor; the changing of hats is an example of differences that were effective in denoting any individuality that was necessary to each scene, and otherwise their similarities in dress represented a very collective cohesiveness. For the most part the ensemble succeeded at maintaining this cohesiveness, though there were a few moments when an ensemble member would draw too much attention to the individuality of their character through silent stage business, which could be considered distracting. Overall, I thought that they managed to strike a good balance of offering up enough personality to service the scene without carrying it over to their other depictions of characters. The incredibly smooth transitions enabled a kind of anonymity for each character, speaking to the mass amounts of individuals that would have been implicated during the war. Having read the play beforehand, were there any scenes in particular that stood out for you?
Jonas: Definitely. As soon as the production began I was immediately relieved to see how faithful the LCP had decided to remain to the original Theatre Workshop performance. The Pierrot's were all fantastic, and did an excellent job of embodying the movement of a clown. Many of the musical numbers, especially one in which a line of Pierrot's play a game of leap-frog, do a wonderful job of capturing the juxtaposition of the upbeat music of the time and the horrific realities of the war. That said, there were a few moments where the production seemed to stray from the text—or at least the version I am familiar with—in a way that seemed to detract from the potential effectiveness of the production. The most glaring instance of this was during a scene wherein a Drill Sergeant drills a row of soldiers on how to properly lead a charge with their bayonets. In the text Littlewood has the Drill Sergeant scream vitriol at his soldiers in a way that one assumes in performance would mirror Gunnery Sergeant Hartman's famous monologue in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. However, this is largely replaced in the LCP production by a much tamer—if it's possible to call the instruction of the proper way to stab one's enemy “tame”—routine which in the end fails to capture the way in which many soldiers were brought about to feel as though they would somehow better themselves by the murder of “the enemy”.
Kat: This scene also frustrated me, because although I think the soldiers’ trivialization of their training was due to their naiveté, which seemed to be a central aspect echoed throughout the production, I still expected the Drill Sergeant to be harsher and speak more strongly to the reality of the situation they were in the midst of preparing for. There were certain moments throughout the production that involved the actors directly addressing the reality of the brutality of war and offering insight that paralleled the newsreel, and this seemed to be one example that did not fully live up to it’s potential. There were other moments, such as at the very beginning of the production, when the actors would address the audience directly. I found these to be among the weaker moments of the play, and while offering some strong satire, it felt rehearsed rather than achieving a sense of spontaneous conversation. I do not think this detracted from the overall production by any means, however. I’d also like to add that although this production aims at being more satirical, the depictions of naiveté alongside the somber backdrop of history makes it difficult to not be sentimental in any way whatsoever.
Jonas: Oh, and I would be absolutely remiss if I didn't mention the Christmas scene. It was absolutely brilliantly handled, and was possibly one of my favourite moments of the production.
Kat: What did you like about it?
Jonas: The scene is based on the famous story of the “Christmas Truce” which began on Christmas Eve during the first year of the war. Allied and German forces left their trenches and together, in the middle of No-Man’s Land, exchanged gifts and played soccer. I thought that the production did a fantastic job of capturing the feeling of hope and community that that truce must have given rise to. It additionally drives home the point that when left to their devices, the common soldiers can find the solution to end the war: just shake hands and make peace.
Do you have any other specific moments that deserve mention?
Kat: I was particularly struck by how well the suffragette scene was executed. I found the increasing rowdiness of the crowd as a competing force for the woman on the platform who offered a voice of reason and truth to be very powerful. The woman’s admonition of the war as a horrific reality that wasn’t being divulged by her time’s press angered her ensemble audience, and this struggle speaks to our own time in many ways.
Jonas: I agree that that scene was handled very well, and did a great job of demonstrating just how effective the propaganda efforts were on the home-front throughout the war. You mention that the struggle of the suffragette to get her information across is one that speaks to the world today. What do you mean by that—and more broadly, why do you think this is an important and relevant play right now?
Kat: The First World War is a prime example of how war was glorified, and although we might like to think we are less susceptible to propaganda, the notion of “fighting for freedom” as justification for militarization is still prominent. Perhaps, with this upcoming Remembrance Day, we might keep in mind the need to adhere to Littlewood’s dire plea of revolutionizing our responses to violence.
Though Oh What A Lovely War! at times falls short of the charisma required when attempting to directly engage the audience in open dialogue, it is nevertheless an important and wholly effective play, immersing the audience in a rhetoric that needs to be remembered. Immediately following this production we were thrown into a conversation about the nature of war, and violence of the White Poppy movement, and our nation's reaction to the recent tragic events in Ottawa. And after all, isn't that exactly what a Brechtian production is supposed to do?
Oh, What a Lovely War! continues its run at the Palace Theatre with four shows from October 29th–November 1st. Curtain is at 8PM. Tickets are $25 and are available at the Palace Theatre box office, or online at http://www.palacetheatre.ca/