Oh, What a Lovely War!, directed by Autumn Smith and presented by Hart House Theatre, is a satirical play about World War I through a modern lens. Themes of violence in video games and gaming are brought into this play as a parallel for the realities of war.
The Medium spoke with Jillian Robinson and Kristiaan Hansen about the play, paying respects to World War I and the Great War, and the significance of video games.
The Medium: Can you tell me what the play is about?
Jillian Robinson: Oh, What a Lovely War! follows the chronology of WWI from all perspectives; Allied and German. This version of the play is different because it’s set within a video game that takes its players and avatars into battles, trenches, ‘No Man’s Land,’ the ‘Homefront’ and encourages them to win the game. The overarching message of the play is about the losses amidst the laughter and the laughter amidst the losses.
Kristiaan Hansen: This play also comments on the ever-perpetuating “war machine” through video games in which there will always be new players ready and willing to play.
TM: Why was it important to bring WWI into Hart House?
JR: Hart House was built in 1911 and played an immense role in the military efforts in WWI. We are honouring this connection through the show. Also, it is the 100th Anniversary of Hart House, an establishment that has played a pivotal role in Toronto’s history since 1919, a year after the end of WWI. It was only fitting that we also acknowledge the turmoil and successes that came with ‘The Great War.’
Furthermore, I think it’s important to see Hart House as a symbol of hope, company, and new prosperity that has helped humanity overcome struggles like WWI. If WWI never happened, then maybe Hart House Theatre wouldn’t have existed. We must honour our past so we can learn and grow.
TM: This play is a satirical take on WWI. Was it difficult to take an event so serious and turn it into something lighthearted?
JR: Honestly, no. There is such a balance between the seriousness and the silliness of the play. The ability to navigate both sides of the story came down to our rehearsal process.
The time in rehearsal was so cerebral and as a cast, we would go off on tangents of laughter and silliness. The ability to laugh made the reality of the text easier to access for us. In the same vein, I had to keep reminding myself that we were in a video game after performing highly physical and emotional scenes. It made my experience much more visceral and I had to rethink my attitude towards video games because soldiers actually had to go through this and face death. They didn’t get a ‘new life’ as you’d get in video games. The satirical aspects of this piece force the audience to see the comicality of war itself while also forcing them to sit in the reality as well. The ebbs and flows of comedy and tragedy in this play allows it to breathe; whether the audience laugh or cry will be based on how they experience the story.
KH: Often times the most effective messages about the heaviest subjects are received through the lens of satire. As the adage goes: “We used to listen to politicians and laugh at comedians, now we listen to comedians and laugh at politicians.” With that in mind, communicating the underlying message is accomplished just by playing the laughs themselves.
TM: Musical numbers are an integral part of this play. How easy or difficult was it to translate the realities of war into song and dance?
JR: For this show, we had to learn the music and execute it in acapella-style. The instant connection between cast members made learning the songs with harmony quite easy. We all came from different musical disciplines and had to really rely on each other’s strengths when it came to who would be comfortable with starting the beat, remembering the proper pitch of the song, holding the melody, doing the harmony, etc.
For movement, Autumn either did a basically choregraphed version of the section by herself for us to learn or she told us her vision for a section, and we choregraphed something for her. So, from a practical point of view, it was easy to learn the song and dance, but also trying as an actor to translate them to the realities of war.
Once the songs and movement were well trained and memorized, incorporating emotional depth was challenging. The weight of what the songs meant while sung in a cheerful tune threw me at first. However, as an actor, it is important to always ground yourself into the overall purpose of the play and have a duty to tell the story in a real way—even through satire. This mindset allowed us to switch emotional states in an instant while performing true to the story and maintaining a safe space in our psyches.
TM: Real footage and images of war are used in the production. What was the significance and how does it add to the realism of the play?
JR: Seeing them on stage emphasizes the realness of the struggles and ridiculous challenges that soldiers went through in WWI. This is especially relevant because society nowadays use screens as a main form of communication. By projecting the realities of war by virtual means, we are reminding them of the historical despair through a language that they can understand.
Although the actors on stage are acting like video game players, they are still real people, relaying real facts that are supported by real-life footage, making the somber moments more hard-hitting and the satirical moments more ridiculous.
TM: Video games are a central theme of this play and an art form of relatability. Why was it important to use it as a parallel for war?
JR: With technology being ubiquitous in society nowadays, our main form of communication sometimes is through a screen. When it comes to video games, I feel like it’s an alternate reality that allows individuals to escape from reality.
I am intrigued to find how audiences are affected by seeing real-life actors pretend to be these video game players. We are supposed to be in the game, but the audience can physically see us going through the lighthearted and heavyhearted struggles of a soldier. Will this live acting of real facts against an animated screen make the game feel more real, make the idea of war feel more real?
KH: Video games for many people—like myself—are a form of escapism from their daily realities. In a lot of ways, war is the same. Recruiters preach about seeing the world and allowing young people to become the masters of their own destiny; propaganda posters questioned young men’s honour in the early 1900s if they weren’t enlisted.
For those young men who at the time were trying to forge their paths in the world, the war seemed like an exciting way to do it. And the thing is, there were always more of them when lives were lost on the battlefield; there were always more players to draw into the game.
TM: Controlling one’s narrative is an underlying message of this play. What do you want the audience to take away from watching the play?
JR: I want the audience to be able to feel a strong connection to elements within the play. Some of the younger audiences may have little factual knowledge on WWI but may be moved by the images that the characters create onstage or the media that is accenting what is happening onstage. Older audiences may remember hearing specific stories of the war or had experienced war themselves.
War affects every single person, away from home, and on the home front so I feel that it is our duty to have the show create that same effect. There are so many layers to this piece: the media, the movement, the songs, the rhythms, the ensemble, the individuality, the satire, the somberness. If each audience member can be moved by at least one of those things, we have done our job of relaying the narrative.
Oh, What a Lovely War! runs until March 7 at Hart House Theatre.