Thirty years ago Billy Bishop Goes to War helped pull Persephone Theatre out of a tailspin of financial trouble. Now the legendary Canadian play is back — and it’s fresher than ever.
Ryan Beil, who portrays roughly 10 different characters including Billy Bishop himself, and Zachary Gray, musician and wingman, create a fast-paced atmosphere that propels this remarkably humorous story of blood lust, patriotism and the futility of the First World War.
The current production, which is dedicated to John Babcock —the last Canadian first world war veteran, who passed away on Feb. 18 of this year — comes across with energy and professionalism. At one point during the performance, a lamp was accidently dropped and, without missing a beat, Beil ad-libbed his way through it, picking up right where he left off. The audience resounded with applause, recognizing his skill and poise.
Transitions between scenes were seamless. And onstage set pieces took on creative functions, as the actors doubled as stagehands. The makeshift airplane at the end of the production alone is worth the price of admission.
The music was, well, largely anachronistic. However, that was sort of the idea. Director Sarah Rodgers, in her director’s message in the program, recalls her initial thoughts, saying, “How wonderful to bring forth the ”˜next generation’ — a young, new sound to a beautiful show.”
Listening to the more modern-sounding songs was a lot like getting into cold water: uncomfortable at first but, after a while, you don’t want to get out. Plus, the harmonies between Beil and Gray were golden. (Gray plays in the Vancouver indie band, The Zolas.)
Above the multitude of accomplishments of Billy Bishop is the balance it strikes between respectful patriotism and criticism of war. A song near the end of the play, called “The Empire Soiree,” speaks to the seeming inevitability and futility of war while remaining wholly entertaining.
Billy Bishop Goes to War plays at the Frank and Ellen Remai Arts Centre nightly at 8 p.m. until March 17.
Sundays at 2 p.m. Seats range from $22 to $35.
The Germans are never demonized in the play (though Bishop kills his fair share of enemy soldiers, even learning to enjoy the kills). Watching two German soldiers free fall to their deaths, Bishop is able to see through his temporary blood lust.
The play manages to maintain the ubiquitous “support our troops” mentality while damning the powers that be. In other words, this play is both important and timely. It gives an insiders’ look into one of the bloodiest wars in history, it entertains and it questions the immoral rationale of empire.