On a small stage in Ottawa I watched a cast of six recreate the Battle of Vimy Ridge a couple of nights ago. Meanwhile, on a somewhat larger stage in New York City, a somewhat larger audience watched the opening night of the $65M. musical Spiderman - Turn Off The Dark.
Spiderman is the creation of Judy Taymor, a very talented film and stage director best known for her imaginative live-staging of Lion King on Broadway. The chief attraction of Lion King was its extraordinary use of puppets to replicate the some of the visual elements of a hit Disney cartoon with mediocre songs and a wretched plot assembled from “The Idiot’s Guide to Joseph Campbell.” It was an enormous success, the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history. It is described by Disney Enterprises as “the current linchpin of the Lion King Franchise”, along with a series of video games.
Vimy*is by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen, set principally in a hospital ward shortly after the World War One battle in which Canadians so distinguished themselves. Given the battle’s iconic place in our history, the fact that it opened the week of Remembrance Day, and the swelling anger about our involvement in Afghanistan, I was expecting a production that would be an earnest, somber, Grand Statement about War. It wasn’t: it was a subtle, moving script driven by character and supported by excellent performances. Through the stories and interaction of five soldiers and a nurse, Vimy explored memory and disconnection, pain survived and endured, the forces large and small that shape our lives and the order we try to build within them. Like the characters, we move between past and present, in dream and through recollection. The battle is almost another character - a presence throughout the play, a black hole that we are simultaneously looking back on and moving toward.
Whereas Lion King*had a treacly soundtrack by Elton John, Spiderman has a louder, thudding soundtrack by Bono and The Edge. The dramatic highlight of Spiderman is supposed to be a series of aerial duels in which Spidey and assorted villains fly out over the audience with the aid of harnesses, pulleys and acrobatic high-wires, recreating the “magic” of the film versions. The magic didn’t work very well during the grand preview performance, though. There were five stoppages in the show, during which the cast dangled helplessly over an increasingly impatient audience while riggers tried to haul them back in.
The dramatic highlight of Vimy came at the end of Act 1. With a scrim and a subtle lighting change the hospital ward has become a trench, and a whistle has just signaled that there are twelve minutes remaining to the attack. And for twelve minutes, the four soldier wait, huddled at the bottom of the trench in near darkness. No-one speaks. Two silently share a drink. One conceals a cigarette. Every minute there’s a whispered countdown signal. They grow increasingly still as the moment approaches.
It was a simple, incredibly brave piece of writing and direction - no dialogue, no movement - that could have misfired horribly. It didn’t. The full house was as silent as the men onstage; them hoping, the audience knowing. At the one minute mark I heard someone behind me trying not to cry.
Broadway master Stephen Sondheim, in “Finishing the Hat”, his recently published collection of lyrics and reflections, mourns the passing of an era when “theatre actually used to mean something, used to actually speak to audiences.”
It still can. You just need to look in the right places. But a good rule of thumb is probably to avoid anything that shares a “franchise” with a Play Station II.