Review by Judith Robinson
Soulpepper’s production of Vern Thiessen’s play, Vimy, is about conflict – not just the one referred to in the play’s title between the Allied powers (Canada, Great Britain, France) against the Central (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire) during WWI. There are almost too many conflicts in this play for the audience to digest – French versus English – gay versus straight – Indigenous versus Caucasian. The list is endless. The question is can all of these issues be navigated effectively in one production? Although only one of many story lines, the Anglophone/Francophone conflict at The Front was by far the most compelling.
It grabbed the audience by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Thiessen paints a crystal-clear picture of the conflict Quebec soldiers felt fighting under the British in WWI. Sébastien Bertrand gives a dynamic and heartfelt performance as Jean-Paul, a Montreal butcher who convinces his friend Claude, played by Wesley French, to sign up and fight alongside English Canada. Jean-Paul represents the moderate Quebecers who believe they may have a better life if they learn to co-operate with the English.
Wesley French does an excellent job of portraying a defiant Quebec soldier who refuses to allow himself to be dominated by the English. He presents a picture of French Canada standing up resolutely for the right to speak French at The Front. Ultimately, Jean-Paul is selected to participate in Claude’s firing squad. The firing squad scene is a pivotal, climatic moment, albeit far too short.Although Thiessen has crafted some brilliant scenes, they are like shells that explode into the night, bursting into flames, appearing and disappearing too quickly. The images burst into the mind like a shell exploding on the horizon, before subsiding into the darkness. They are too many fleeting images to produce an in depth understanding any of the characters. The set up is great, but the audience is not given enough information to identify with any them.
Yet Thiessen’s kaleidoscope brings the audience to some fascinating places: a young nurse, Clare, sensitively portrayed by Christine Horne, struggles to care for patients who don’t want to get well enough to go back to the fight; an Indigenous man, Mike, also played by French, wonders how the war relates to his people; Winnipeg soldier, Sid, compassionately played by Tim Dowler-Coltman, confronts his blindness to his gay tendencies; Nova Scotia Highlander, Laurie, played by the charismatic, Andrew Chown questions if he will be able to love anyone after what he’s experienced at The Front, and most poignant of all, French soldier, Jean-Paul questions his ability to survive in an English environment.
The short scenes and incomplete thoughts might have been more effective if the segments had been arranged in chronological order. But the performance did replicate the disturbed and distorted mindsets of the injured soldiers. The effect was, at times, disturbing, but very powerful on a gut level.The sense of disorientation was heightened by the wonderful lighting by André du Toit, the haunting minimalistic set by Astrid Janson and the subtle, evocative, aural reminders of war by sound designers John Gzowski and Deanna Choi. These talented designers provided the heartbeat of the show. Without them, the drama’s impact would have been far less gut-wrenching.
Although this is a flawed play in many ways, it is also brilliant. In its sketchiness and unfinished conversations, an experience of life at The Front is made hauntingly real. Is it war that created the inner conflicts in these characters? Or are these struggles at the heart of our complex Canadian identity? Thiessen has managed to capture an important part of the national psyche seldom witnessed on a Canadian stage.
Vimy is playing until August 5th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Don’t miss it.