Haunting war poem is given new passion in musical play
by Kevin Rushworth
With each passing year, the “greatest of wars” slips further from public recollection. In four years, it will be the 100th anni- versary of the beginning of the First World War. As if by selfish hands, chess pieces were placed one by one on the field of battle. Soldiers — filled with notions of glory and romantic warfare — arrived by the trainloads to take their places on the game board that was Europe in 1914.
In Flanders Fields — the current Lunchbox Theatre production and world premiere musical — took the audience from the intimate Calgary lunchtime stage setting and plopped them into the mud of the French trenches where Lt-Col. John McCrae spent the last years of his life. While we recite the famous poem each Remembrance Day, In Flanders Fields — the production written by Robert Gontier and music penned by Nicky Phillips — shows us the brother- hood, friendship, love and true humanity of our most famous poet through song.
As the stage lights slowly rose, two men marched onto a simple, yet elegantly designed stage where they stood amongst discarded rifles, helmets and a sandbag trench. John McCrae — played brilliantly by Kevin Rothery — and his friend Alexis — portrayed by veteran stage actor Tory Doctor — are two of the three actors in the production. From under their metal helmets, their eyes betray them for they are alive and filled with wonder. Behind them, the stage is backlit with red and green — eerily reminiscent of the pop- pies that came to grow between the crosses row on row. The men’s first uplifting song is cut brutally short, dashed by the sound of an explosion.
When we meet McCrae again, he is huddled in the trenches of Ypres with Alexis in 1915. The wonder has left their eyes and they are haggard from battle. McCrae is wracked with guilt after watching his friends and battalion members plunge over the trenches to their deaths. In Flanders Fields flashes backwards and forwards through time as McCrae looks back on his early life. The audience witnesses his first dance with his true love, his passion for poetry and his terse relationship with his father.
The production’s incredible acting intertwines the eras be- fore and during the First World War, bringing them vividly to life. While Kevin Rothery portrayed one character, Tory Doctor switched easily between three including the thoughtful Alexis, McCrae’s overachieving brother Tom and his military father. Lunchbox Theatre newcomer, Julain Molnar played the characters of McCrae’s first love Jenny, Alexis’ love Alice and McCrae’s encouraging mother. Each and every actor brought emotion, strength and utter humanity to their roles.
A musical production of the battle of Ypres and the First World War is a difficult task to take on. With that said, beautiful vocals and heart-wrenching lyrics melded effortlessly into the storyline. The songs were not over the top, but paid dear homage to a subject that is not first off the tongue when thinking about musical numbers. Watching a young McCrae miming, asking out a girl he loved in front of a mirror was enough to make one think about the lives these young men had before going to war. McCrae’s character progressed from a joyful spirit to a man — hollowed by violent warfare — who is unable to find words to write another poem.
But John McCrae did find his words. He would leave the world with one of the most beautiful, yet haunting poems of the First World War. It would come to symbolize not only the fallen from the First World War but of many global conflicts. During its month-long run, those who came to see the play remembered those who had fallen long before Nov. 11.
In Flanders Fields runs until Nov. 13 at Lunchbox Theatre.