november 2018 | Volume 173
The cast of Three Winters. Photo by Emily Cooper
Amiel Gladstone’s new Remembrance Day play is based on his grandfather’s stories about his three years in the German prisoner-of-war camp where the Great Escape took place in 1945. It’s a fascinating, if somewhat scattered, piece about the Canadians, Americans and Brits who planned and carried out the audacious escape, and how they filled their time when not tunneling the 30 feet down, 335 feet out past the machine guns and barbed wire fences, and 30 feet up again to what they hoped would be freedom.
Part of its fascination is playwright/director Gladstone’s decision to use female actors in all the men’s roles: Ghazal Azarbad, Raylene Harewood, Olivia Hutt, Camille Legg, Julia Siedlanowska, Naomi Vogt and Libby Willoughby. The preview performance I saw was entertaining and moving.
The central character, Len, pilots a Halifax bomber shot down over Belgium. The other six crew members die and Len is left with severe survivor’s guilt. Nevertheless, he slowly adapts to life in the Stalag where, he’s told, “the things we talk about the least are women and sex.”
Their lives revolve around escape plans, brilliantly organized by a prisoner named Roger. The tunnel they’re digging they call Harry, because their first two attempts—Tom and Dick—were discovered by the Germans. They face enormous challenges: digging through tons of earth and sand with only tools created from ration tins; shoring up the tunnel with boards scavenged from their beds and other meager furnishings; and disposing of the enormous amounts of sand they dig up while keeping their secret from the German guards.
The latter is done with an ingenious device that allows the “penguins” to slowly release sand from their pants as they awkwardly waddle around the compound.
Their other major activity is playmaking. Theatre, Gladstone quotes from his grandfather’s journal, “is what kept us alive.” We get scenes from The Man Who Came to Dinner, Macbeth and the 1939 play No Time for Comedy. These are enjoyable and nicely done, but the amount of time spent on them seems arbitrary.
We learn a little about a few of the six other principals, especially one guy who enjoys playing the female parts. He assures Len, “You get to be who you are around here.”
We get flashbacks to a church service with some sweet singing, and memories of a dance hall, delightfully played. There’s also a nice scene where one of the guys surreptitiously trades soap and some other Red Cross gifts with a German guard in exchange for a camera they need for the escape. Until we hear about the murderous Gestapo later, the play’s portrait of the German captors is pretty benign.
Right up to the actual escape, its aftermath and the moving postwar ending, these scenes feel relatively random. But all the performances are very good and the staging consistently interesting on Adrian Muir’s adaptable set. A long rectangular wooden tube serves as the plane, the prisoners’ beds, the tunnel and more. An effective sound design from Sammie Hatch and costumer Jacqueline Firkins’ generic khaki jumpsuits help establish the reality.
It’s a theatrical reality, as the cross-gender casting makes clear. I didn’t think there were any real revelations arising from watching women play men in these circumstances, but what struck me was the youth of the performers, a sobering reminder that most of the men who fought, died, spent years in prison camps and maybe escaped were really only kids. The oldest crew member in Len’s Halifax bomber was 23.
Note: I haven’t singled out any actors by name because neither the Cultch program nor its press release indicates the specific roles each actor plays. I understand that this is an ensemble work but it’s frustrating. People do want to know who’s who, and give ample credit where it’s due.
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