Actor Eric Peterson—still keeping his eyes on the skies after 30 years. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Canada’s theatrical literature is still a young’un, comparatively speaking: the infant soft spots on our skull have hardened, but in terms of personality and speech, we’re probably just past the toddler phase. While England, Italy, and Greece reached theatrical maturity long before we were a twinkle in our forefathers’ eye, Canada’s canon is still developing an identity, voice, and style. (Broadway and West End remounts are fun, for sure, but distinctly Canuck they ain’t.)
This makes for quite an exciting time to be a Canadian theatre-goer. We can only speculate about the times when Shakespeare and Euripides were stirring shit up, but Canadian audiences can still catch the shows and artists that will go down in theatre history as landmarks and trailblazers. One such show is Billy Bishop Goes to War, one of Soulpepper’s most loved productions, currently being remounted.
This two-man show about the life of Canada’s most famous, and among the most decorated, WW1 fighter pilot William Avery “Billy” Bishop, was originally created in the late ’70s by university friends John Gray and Eric Peterson. After its opening in Vancouver, the show travelled across Canada, the States, headed to Broadway, and flew across the pond to the UK. Today it is one of Canada’s most-produced plays, a definitive star in Canada’s still-forming list of classics.
Now 62, a slightly more long-in-the-tooth Peterson is back on stage in the titular role, and along with Gray and director Ted Dykstra is regaling new audiences with his tales of airborne triumph. Gray’s music (plus the occasional interjection) is a perfectly-matched compliment to Peterson’s two-hour monologue as the kid from Owen Sound who, in a matter of years, went from being the Canadian Royal Military College’s latest expulsion—named their worst student of all time—to a national hero with over 70 victories by the end of WW1, including a match with the infamous Red Baron. Bishop embodies the quintessential Canadian country charm, never letting his lack of qualifications stop him from moving up the ranks. The 17 or so other characters Peterson plays are also delightfully cartoonish and exaggerated (those crazy Brits!). And Peterson and Gray have a camaraderie onstage that is understated and simple, and competely in-sync. It’s almost as if they’ve been doing this for decades.
But what’s strongest in this play, and is perhaps the reason for its longevity, is its adaptability. In 1998, Peterson and Gray modified the original script to include an older Bishop, and did so again in 2010. Now, it’s a show less about the historical exploits and more about an older man caught up in the memories of his youth, in blue cotton pajamas, black slippers, and a red cotton dressing gown, speaking to his love Margaret whom we can only assume passed away years ago. (His recapitulated letters to her always ending with a heartbreaking “Thinking of you constantly, I remain…”) The shift from a thirty-something to a sixty-something Bishop makes the show simultaneously more comedic and more tragic: the older (yet impressively agile) man dons his flying gear and shuttles around the stage reenacting flight patterns with verve to rival any seven-year-old, all the while knowing it’s all a creation in his mind. More stylistic choices in the second act reinforce the idea that Bishop is retreating further and further inside his mind, to the point where we wonder is Gray is also just a figment of his imagination, a piano player he once came across during his time in Europe rather than an interlocutor in the here and now.
In another sweet mark of the play’s development over time, just as the character of Bishop looks back at his time in the war, pieces of the set look back on the history of the production—both are a bit more retrospective than before. Various trunks and set props that become Bishop’s aircraft, podiums, and stages all boast the names of theatres the show has traveled to (Soulpepper, Canadian Stage Company, the Edinburgh Festival, Washington’s Arena Stage, London’s Comedy Theatre), and photos of past productions line the walls of the theatre. Together, Bishop the pilot and Bishop the play are reflecting on their influence and their legacies, two true Canadian icons.