— L-R: Daryl King and Sebastian Kroon. Photo by David Cooper
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is an important chapter in our national mythology.
As the Great War raged on in April 1917, the struggle for a small rise of land in northern France cost Canada the lives of 3600 men with more than twice as many more wounded.
But the Germans were driven back, and a strategic objective which the British and French armies had been unable to secure was won by the four divisions of Canadian troops fighting together for the first time.
Along with Ypres and the Somme, Passchendaele and Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy Ridge came to define Canada’s “coming of age” on the muddy, blood-soaked battlefields of World War One.
In the run-up to Remembrance Day, Donna Spencer’s Firehall production of Vern Thiessen’s Vimy memorializes not the victory (which turned out to be strategically insignificant), but the individuals who sacrificed life, limb, happiness and sanity to achieve it.
Ironically, the play’s characters seem more representational than individual. Recovering in a field hospital after the battle are Native Canadian Mike (Ryan Cunningham) from Alberta, suffering the effects of poison gas; a shell-shocked Quebecker, Jean-Paul (Sean Harris Oliver); shrapnel-wounded Ontarian Will (Mack Gordon); and Sid (Sebastian Kroon) from Winnipeg, who has been blinded.
Watching over them, nurse Clare (Sasa Brown) pines for her fellow Nova Scotian soldier-boy, Laurie (Daryl King). Apparently, no British Columbians fought at Vimy Ridge.
The play flashes back and forth from the battle’s aftermath to the battle itself and its preparations. We also get to know a little of each character’s background, although Thiessen never digs very deep. He’s more concerned with establishing their representative Canadianness in conversations about beer and hockey, language issues, canoes and mosquitoes.
Amid consistently strong acting, Cunningham is a standout both as Mike, conveying the terror of a gas attack, and as a French-speaking soldier humiliated by an anglophone officer. Oliver powerfully expresses Jean-Paul’s horrific experience on a firing squad executing a Canadian deserter. And Kroon is mesmerizing when Sid describes men and horses screaming and drowning in the shell holes of no man’s land. Brown’s nurse Clare holds the show together with good-humoured competence.
Craig Alfredson’s versatile set suggests both a hill and a war memorial, the hospital beds seemingly hewn out of monumental marble. James Proudfoot’s lighting and Marc Stewart’s sound design vividly evoke the chaos of battle. Sabrina Evertt’s uniforms help sustain the sense of authenticity.
Whether or not Canada “came of age” at Vimy Ridge, there’s no doubting the sacrifices and suffering of the Canadians who were there.