By Courtney Leigh Church, Oct. 30, 2018
Weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the armistice that brought World War I to an end, London’s Grand Theatre presents “Timothy Findley’s The Wars.”
Set in the early years of the First World War, “The Wars” follows Robert Ross (Alex Furber) as he leaves his parents’ home behind and enlists in the Canadian Army. As he travels from basic training to the muddy fields of war-torn France, we learn that Ross is haunted by guilt; he blames himself for the recent death of his sister, Rowena (Georgina Beaty), and cannot cope with his mother’s (Jan Alexandra Smith) alcoholism. Ross, an amicable though apprehensive young man, flees from the trauma of his home life and runs straight into the turmoil of war.
Director Dennis Garnhum has done a remarkable job adapting Timothy Findley’s novel for the stage. Prose has the advantage of fluidity, but Garnhum has streamlined the story into a more linear narrative which works well for a live theatre audience.
The play maintains the ebb and flow of past and present through Ross’s memories which come alive on stage as the present unfolds. These flashbacks serve to highlight Ross’s love for Rowena and are beautifully authentic thanks to Furber and Beaty’s sibling chemistry.
At points, though, the flashbacks seem watered down by events in the present. The production is too ambitious in its attempt to touch on the many plot points of the original story. As a result, we miss much of the weight behind the deeply troubled relationship between Ross and his mother, despite the excellent independent performances of Furber and Smith.
photo: Dahlia Katz
The production shines in its depiction of the relationships between soldiers. Much like the novel, the Grand’s production focuses on the lives of individuals swept up in events beyond their control. Each character has their own complicated history, and these stories are teased out through Ross’s friendship.
Christopher Bautista is a confident and charismatic Captain Taffler, Ross’s mentor in basic training. Having already seen one tour of duty, Taffler’s self-assurance becomes a model for the newly promoted second lieutenant Ross.
Edmund Stapleton’s Sergeant Rodwell is an artist-turned-soldier who shares Ross’s love of animals. His kindness toward human and animal alike serves as a reminder about the value – and precarity – of life in the trenches.
John Wamsley’s Private Harris is an affable Cape Bretoner and Ross’s closest confidant. Wamsley’s performance is heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once.
photo: Dahlia Katz
The production team has created a dynamic atmosphere to accommodate the play’s many settings. Set designer Allan Stichbury has framed the stage with worn wooden beams in muted tones to serve as scaffolding for each of the scenes that follow. The depth and adaptability of his set is more impressive, still, during scenes when a centre wall moves forward and the acting space is reduced to a sliver of the stage, front and centre. In these moments, audience members are almost uncomfortably close to the action.
Alongside Stichbury, composer and sound designer Richard Feren animates the space with deafening shellfire and tranquil tones. Period costumes by Christina Poddubiuk, who was the designer of ‘Julius Caesar’ this season at the Stratford Festival, anchor the characters to their environment.
“Timothy Findley’s The Wars” is, in part, a celebration of Findley’s life and works and, in part, a way of remembering Canadians who have served. It is also, importantly, a thought-provoking reminder of the individual people and stories that, together, ground national narratives.
Timothy Findley’s The Wars
The Grand Theatre
Through November 11
Purchase tickets online
Box office: 519-672-8800