January 29, 2010
Monday evening was my first time to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District. Soulpepper’s 2010 theatre season opened with one of the most produced plays of the Canadian stage. Billy Bishop Goes to War is tried and tested collaboration that has its roots on at Vancouver’s East Cultural Centre back in 1978. This two-act musical recounts the life of its eponymous WWI ace fighter pilot. It’s told in the first-person by pajama-clad actor Eric Peterson, who enacts episodes from Bishop’s life. Although the play is essentially recounted as an autobiographical soliloquy, Peterson skillfully impersonates eighteen other players in the Bishop’s life-story. Peterson shares the stage with John Gray, (not to be confused with Oshawa’s mayor) who remains seated at a grand piano throughout the play. Gray’s musical accompaniments punctuate Peterson’s monologue with jingoistic ditties from the Great War era.
One of the underlying themes of the play is that war inexorably transforms individuals; conflict can grind a misfit into a hero. Before serving overseas, Billy Bishop was the “oddity from Owen Sound.” Throughout the play we find out that the celebrated protagonist was a loner, a cheater (both in exams and relationships), someone with many idiosyncrasies, including a taste for strong drink—certainly not the credentials for a war hero. Even so, Air Marshall Bishop was one of the leading aeronautical aces in the British Empire. One of the most memorable anecdotes recounts the moment of King George decorating Billy Bishop with the Victoria Cross. King to Bishop—Check it out.