The War of 1812 and Hirsch: Two plays about culture wars

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The Globe and Mail

Friday, Jul. 13 2012

The War of 1812
Written and directed by Michael Hollingsworth
Starring Greg Campbell, Richard Alan Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Mac Fyfe, Jacob James, Linda Prystawska, Anand Rajaram and Michaela Washburn
3 stars

Co-created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson
Directed by Paul Thompson
Starring Alon Nashman
3 stars

It’s been the labour of a lifetime, covering the history of a country.

Since 1985, Michael Hollingsworth has been writing and rewriting, staging and restaging a series of marvelously mischievous chronicle plays. The 21-part History of the Village of the Small Huts tells the whole Canadian saga from beginning to end – or, in any case, from first contact to the reign of Brian Mulroney.

Now, Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff has invited Hollingsworth’s company, VideoCabaret, to town with an expanded version of their chapter on the War of 1812 to a little cabaret theatre created just for the occasion.

Hollingsworth’s version of events suggests the war whose bicentennial we are commemorating this year was just the first of a number of ill-fated American invasions framed around the toppling of a foreign tyranny and the exportation of democracy.

President James Madison, here a tiny man with a big opium problem played by Jacob James, imagines Canadians will greet the Yankees as liberators and, quoting Jefferson, expects the whole thing will be “a mere matter of marching.”

Unfortunately, most in Upper and Lower Canada – like, later on, those in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – don’t mind their tyrant and many even sing songs praising him. Tecumseh (Anand Rajaram), head of the tribal confederacy that joined forces with the British to repel the Americans, isn’t quite as gung-ho on God saving George III, but sees him as an excellent ally in his attempt to keep his people’s lands.

Polished after decades of adjustments, Hollingsworth’s idiosyncratic staging style involves shining carefully calibrated beams of light on his actors’ faces, so they appear floating in the darkness of what looks like a giant television screen. It’s Canada, as a grotesque puppet show. Or, perhaps, Canada: a peephole’s history.

In short, sharp scenes, his versatile cast of eight make quick changes between more than 40 caricatures. Mac Fyfe as British soldier James FitzGibbon and Richard Clarkin as American general Winfield Scott stand out as hilarious, then terrifying, warriors.

The War of 1812 is, truth be told, not the best of the cycle – though newcomers won’t realize that. It’s, more than usual, one damned thing after another and lacks a protagonist, high or low, to guide us all the way through the carnage.

Spoiler alert: The two most sympathetic characters – bold General Isaac Brock (a swashbuckling Richard Clarkin) and brave Tecumseh – don’t make it to the end.

In the continuing battle against absorption by the United States, another anti-hero came to fight for us in 1947. John Hirsch, a Hungarian Jew orphaned by the Holocaust, arrived in Winnipeg after the Second World War and quickly became a leader in Canadian culture.

Hirsch would co-found the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the model for this country’s network of regional theatres, then embark on an international directing career.

He ran CBC drama for five years in the 1970s, then the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for another five in the 1980s, helping it recover from a succession crisis that nearly scuttled the ship.

In the new one-man play he’s created with Paul Thompson, actor Alon Nashman shows how the mercurial Hirsch’s desire to forge a new culture came out of the trauma of watching an old one be destroyed.

Like Mother Courage, he drags his emotional baggage around in a cart across a miniature recreation of the Festival Theatre stage – “the thrust stage in the sky.”

Hirsch, the play, is at its best when it demonstrates how the director’s life infused his art: The way the memory of seeing his grandfather shot in front of him influenced his Mother Courage and Her Children; how the guilt of being a survivor altered his interpretation of The Tempest; and, perhaps, most importantly, how his eccentric, bourgeois upbringing give him unusual insight into the works of Chekhov. (Hirsch’s 1976 Stratford production of Three Sisters with Marti Maraden, Martha Henry and Maggie Smith is his most legendary work.)

Will anyone else be interested in a play that’s about Canadian theatre?

Well, it worked out all right for Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy. Indeed, a character from that play, Miles Potter, pops up here, too, being attacked with Kleenex boxes by Hirsch as he attempts to rehearse the role of Caliban – so it is, in a way, a sequel or a spin-off.

Affectingly staged by Thompson, Hirsch doesn’t shy away from showing the bullying side of the director who died of AIDS in 1989. Is it too affectionate a portrait? Perhaps, but Canada does love its tyrants.

At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.

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