Soulpepper’s Vimy glosses over world war drama: review


Written by Vern Thiessen. Directed by Diana Leblanc. Until Aug. 5 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane. or 416-866-8666

As a large chunk of the Soulpepper Theatre ensemble reaches the halfway point of their month-long residency in New York City, the programming back home has taken on a particularly nationalistic tone.

Marking Canada’s sesquicentennial, indie company VideoCabaret has successfully tackled Confederation while stage veteran Eric Peterson returned in a remount of the Canadian theatre classic Billy Bishop Goes to War, about the famous First World War fighter pilot.

As a sort of companion piece to Billy Bishop, Soulpepper’s summer offerings continued this week with Vern Thiessen’s First World War memory play Vimy, which brings together the stories of five Canadian soldiers and one nurse in a hospital room after the famous battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

The 100th anniversary of the battle may have been only a few months ago, but Diana Leblanc’s production of Vimy feels disconnected from any contemporary conversation about Canadian identity in this period of historical self-reflection.

Not every production that happens to be Canadian in the year 2017 needs to be self-consciously driven to respond to current affairs, but this Vimy opts for theatrics that overreach for sentimentality, and glosses over the grit of the personal and political drama underneath.

On Astrid Janson’s appropriately otherworldly wooden plank set, raked upward to give the soldiers a trench to emerge from during the recreation of the battle, nurse Clare (Christine Horne) tends to the wounds of four soldiers: Quebecer Jean-Paul (Sébastien Bertrand), suffering from PTSD; Winnipegger Sid (Tim Dowler-Coltman), who has gone blind; Ontario canoe-maker Will (TJ Riley), with an arm injured from shrapnel; and Indigenous Alberta man Mike (Wesley French), who has lung damage from a gas attack.

In flashbacks, they each revisit their pasts and the moments of trauma that gave them their emotional as well as physical scars.

For Jean-Paul and Mike, the sorrow comes from the social prejudice they face as Indigenous and French-Canadian soldiers in an English colonial war, as well as the loss of a close companion. For Will and Sid, it’s a friendship they shared one summer building a water pipe in Winnipeg (in a muddy conceit, Thiessen has Will pretend to be someone else while in the same hospital room as the recently blinded Sid).

As Clare tends to the injured, she triggers such flashbacks and is also triggered herself: her memories reveal her relationship with a man in Nova Scotia that, from the get-go, appears to be doomed.

Though these histories attempt to reveal overlooked aspects of the mythological story of Vimy Ridge, like racism, xenophobia, sexism, classism and homophobia, their impact is to lend sympathy to the characters to highlight the brutality of war — a message that doesn’t feel new or thought-provoking.

Leblanc never seems to find a way to clearly guide the audience in and out of these memories, or to establish a clear setting (a home base, if you will), from which these larger questions can emerge.

The audience is constantly trying to keep up and make sense of the action. Not helping matters is the condensing of Thiessen’s original 2007 two-act script into one; there’s a noticeable shift in pace and tone that makes it feel like two very different plays in one (the memory play vs. the nitty-gritty war drama, going over drills and preparing for battle).

The characters and relationships built in the first half are virtually lost until we return to the hospital room for a melodramatic finish.

If anything, the cultural conversation around Canada 150 and #Resistance150 proves that Canadians are interested in and capable of conducting complex discussions around identity, history, and dominant and subversive narratives. This production of Vimy, unfortunately, doesn’t give the audience an opportunity to do that.


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