This is War: Controversially Uncontroversial

Brianna McFarlane

“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from, and if he really was evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not have rather stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.”– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

            Let’s get something straight: despite ample evidence to the contrary (its title, the preshow including announcements by Anne Marie Creskey of Hill Times and Embassy newspaper that the media relations people at the Department of National Defence warned Ms. Cresky that this play, and the Friday Night Fight to follow, were controversial) Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s new piece, This is War, to me is not at all about the controversy of going to war. This work doesn’t debate the ‘should haves’ or the ‘shouldn’t haves’ of Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan or the politics behind deploying our troops, nor does the play focus on how this war changed Canada as a nation. This is War, directed by Artistic Director Eric Coates and produced by the Great Canadian Theatre Company, is, in fact, an incredibly humanizing and empathetic portrayal of the men and women who come face to face with the reality and the deep personal and emotional effects of war. In this case, Moscovitch decides to examine the ravaged psyches of the contemporary Canadian soldier.

L-R Sarah Finn, John Ng, Drew Moore in spotlights(From left to right: Sarah Finn, John Ng, and Drew Moore; photography: Andrew Alexander)

            The play itself, originally commissioned in 2008 for the Banff Centre’s 75th anniversary, is a multi-layered recount of an ill-fated operation in the most volatile region of Afghanistan and is told by four soldiers whose stories reveal how the human equation affects each of the stories’ respective outcomes. By the end we see the full extent of the physical, mental, and emotional trauma the characters have undergone and I left the theatre not wondering whether or not Canada achieved its objective in Afghanistan but rather intensely empathizing with the extreme overall fortitude that these men and women in the military posses.

Moscovitch does an admirable job at interlacing the stories and scenes together in such a way that every time you revisit a scene a brand new context is layered on top with further implications that leave the audience eager to know the entire story. The playwright’s chosen structure allows for interesting character development in which we see not only how each character views the other figures on stage, but also themselves. Furthermore, these characters are well developed and nuanced. “Nice guy” Private Jonny Henderson from Red Deer, as played by Drew Moore, is young and perhaps a little ignorant, but is open and honest in both his speech and gestures, having not yet been embittered by the horrors of war (though we come to see this transition in his telling of the events). Master Corporal Tanya Young, played by Sarah Finn, emanates an air of incredible fragility and sensitivity underneath her “tough chick from Hamilton” persona. John Ng’s Sergeant Stephen Hughes who fights so hard to keep his men together that he is unable to stop himself from falling apart. Moreover, the language of the piece is realistic and unforced. Also, as a self proclaimed connoisseur of curse words, I felt the colloquialisms to be perfectly suited to the environment. Overall, I think Moscovitch’s text is a strong and realistic representation of war that reflects a distinctly Canadian experience in an undoubtedly controversial context.

The staging and direction by Coates is simply excellent. The physical playing space, designed by Brian Smith, is kept very simple and bare allowing small details such as the sand-paper textured floor which creates an excellent crunching sound associated with sand and three army green wooden crates to represent the base camp in the Afghanistan desert. Lighting designer Jock Monroe lights the large upstage scrim beautifully throughout this piece as the vast open sky corresponding to the time of the day of each particular scene. From the shadowed moonlit evenings to the intense brightness of 12 noon in the desert I looked forward to every transition.

The blocking is simple and unassuming, though that is not by any means a criticism. We switch between moments where the characters directly address an outside, voiceless investigator about the mysterious happenings during the ill-fated joint-op with the Afghani military where the actors stand full front and are isolated by a single, sharp, square of bright light; and moments when they are re-enacting the memories brought on by this interrogation process in which the rest of the stage space is used effectively through different configurations of the stage blocks to represent different areas of the camp, varied entrances and exits, and even small scenes happening in the wings (if you’ve seen the show, you know exactly to what I’m referring). Moreover, thanks to the uninterrupted run time (i.e. no intermission!) I remained completely and utterly engaged throughout. However, the major benefit to this uncomplicated staging is that it allows the strengths of the actors to take centre stage, if you will.

I must admit, it was incredibly refreshing to see such a solid performance on the professional stage from an entirely Ottawa-raised ensemble. Sometimes I find the professional performances in this city can be a bit of a mixed bag in terms of stage practices, performance styles, and levels of natural talent, but when it comes to the performers in This is War the ensemble is all on the same page and it is clear that each performer individually is bringing their A-game to the stage. Ms. Finn is a powerful Master Corporal Tanya Young, whose explosive breakdowns are equally and impressively balanced with moments of intense emotional restraint. Moore’s Private Jonny Henderson is a poignant blend of naïve innocence while serving at the CAF mirrored by an incredibly embittered and battered veteran back in Red Deer. Sergeant Stephen Hughes played by Ng is captivating in his agony and anguish, trying to appear as the strong alpha male leader to his men while his life outside of the CAF crumbles around him.

Finally, we have Brad Long playing army-medic Sergeant Chris Anders. I have to be frank here: both the actor and this character stole the show for me. The character is incredibly interesting as he is the only one from who we do not really get to hear in regards to the joint-operation despite being heavily involved in the other three character’s stories. Arguably, the character who deals the most with death and the grimness of war, he remains the most removed out of all the characters reciting his final horrid findings about the joint-op with an almost shocking sense of detachment. There is such great detail added to this character throughout the piece that shows the audience just how far he is willing to go to help his comrades feel even a little better, though never getting too emotionally involved. Mr. Long is perfectly cast in this role. His desensitization brings out a duality in this character as his stage presence brings both humour and a sense of calm to his ensemble.

I prefaced my review with a quotation which I feel really speaks to the mindset of these characters throughout the play, who are all linked together by their inability to sleep because they keep seeing the faces of their victims at night and as such are each told at some point in the play that they look like “zombies” or “death” by Sergeant Anders. In this context this is how I interpreted Tolkien to mean when he writes, “War will make corpses of us all.” When the soldiers return to their respective homes they are hardly human, the extreme pressures of military service and the horrors they’ve seen has turned them into shells of what they once were; they have, in a sense, become corpses.

Sadly, Moscovitch’s play is hardly an exaggeration of contemporary issues, with news reports coming out regularly detailing the rise in suicide rates amongst veterans and currently deployed soldiers. New campaigns like #sendupthecount, originated by Master Cpl. Jordan Irvine and Sgt. Brian Harding (two Canadian veterans from Afghanistan), are encouraging soldiers everywhere to get in touch with friends from battles gone by to ensure no one is unwell, slipping into depression, or heading toward suicide, but with incomplete military statistics it is still difficult to discern just how serious this issue really is. Moscovitch’s play, and undoubtedly this incredibly production, places the genesis and the evolution of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into excellent perspective.

At risk of sounding too hyperbolic, this show needs to be seen by everyone in Ottawa. I cannot recommend it enough and I have to agree wholeheartedly with my date for that evening, “If this play is considered controversial, then we have a serious problem on our hands as Canadians.” Bravissimo!

Check out This is War at the Irving Greenberg Centre playing until February 23rd, 2014.

This is War written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Eric Coats

Assistant Director: Geoff McBride

Starring: Sarah Finn, Brad Long, Drew Moore, and John Ng

Set & Costume Design by Brian Smith

Sound Design by Steven Lafond

Lighting Design by Jock Munro

Stage Management by Chantal Hayman

Fight Choreography by John Koensgen