Many of us have had the conversation which begins with a question posed to an aging veteran: What did you do during the war? Whether you’ve been fortunate enough to experience the answer in person, or have simply imagined the story a lost relative might have told, it’s clear when Eric Peterson comes onstage at the Young Centre that this was the very question asked prior to the opening line of Billy Bishop Goes to War. What subsequently unfolds is a generally engaging piece of theatre that, while not awe-inspiring nor directly relevant, still maintains itself as a uniquely important piece to see.
Billy Bishop opened in Vancouver in 32 years ago, and like this production, it starred co-writer Peterson as the eponymous character. Based on the story of the decorated Canadian hero, Billy Bishop has since been incarnated countless times. This time around, Peterson is clad not in military garb, but in a set of flannel pajamas and a housecoat. He is surrounded by trunks on various angles and levels, all marked faintly with Bishop’s name. A worn armchair sits at stage right and one feels as though this is Bishop’s living room. The set’s minimalism, with its scattered prop pieces, is also reminiscent of a museum display. The object given most scenographic importance is Bishop’s uniform jacket, displayed for the majority of the play on a mannequin upstage centre. The jacket suggests not only Bishop’s past, but the history of the production itself: if not the same costume worn by Peterson in 1978, it is most certainly a conscious replica. As the play progresses, Peterson pulls out framed photos of people, places and things embedded into the narrative. The photos are then placed variously onstage, illuminated with soft, focused light. The result of the scenography is haunting: the domesticity of the armchair and the housecoat immediately evokes the intimate, familiar, and in a sense, familial as Bishop becomes grandfather to his audience. At the same time, the “museum” elements to the staging also create an ephemeral ambience—a feeling that, like the light, this “living” story has the very distinct possibility of fading away unless it is itself guarded.
The story of Billy Bishop begins at the outset of Bishop’s military career, ending with his eventual honorary discharge. The first act begins with the exuberant energy of a new recruit, and is, for the most part, lighthearted and comedic. By Act Two, however, the tone takes a turn for the melancholy, allowing Peterson to explore the darker colours of war stories. Overall, the script remains somewhat conservative in its emotional breadth, and operates as a series of historical anecdotes structured chronologically. What should be a climactic recounting of Bishop’s favourite battle is limited by its staging atop the onstage piano, with Peterson clutching a toy airplane that he manoeuvres as he narrates the battle’s highlights. Peterson is a vocally gifted performer; in contrast with his dynamic aural delivery of the scene, the awkward effect of the physical limitation is only amplified, rendering one of the play’s final and most climactic moments somewhat unsatisfactory. Peterson himself, though, is by no means an unsatisfactory performer. He artfully renders each character, and moves seamlessly and effortlessly through each one, from a domineering aristocrat to a passive-aggressive recruiting sergeant.
At the end of the play, the lights fade on one final, framed image—that of Bishop’s uniform lapel, decorated with medals. The sombre tone of this dramatic last image is ambitious for a production that at times feels more like a well-made evening special on the CBC than a stirring historical drama. That said, one is also left feeling curiously haunted. This is a play that itself has a great deal of history, and this production does not deny the age of the work, nor that of its writer-
performer. Instead, it uses the passage of time to great advantage. While not necessarily timely, Billy Bishop is still a vital story to tell, and Soulpepper, a Canadian repertory theatre company, might just be its ideal venue. The image of the aging performer in pyjamas and bathrobe performing, 30 years later, what has arguably become a canonical piece of Canadian theatre does not simply remind us of the potential loss, without conscious preservation, of Bishop’s story and war stories like it. It also shows the need for preservation of the very works of art themselves, works that still preserve a sense of life well after their subjects—and their artists—are long gone.
Billy Bishop Goes to War runs at the Young Centre through February 27. For more information, visit soulpepper.ca.