Okay kids, time for a pop quiz: who served as Canada’s eighth prime minister? If the answer has momentarily slipped your mind, just reach inside your purse for the nearest $100 bill (they’re the brown ones that the convenience store refuses to take) and look for the guy with a leather daddy mustache.
While perhaps not as memorable as Laurier or Sir John A, Robert Borden did have the distinction of governing during World War 1, enacting conscription and introducing our country’s beloved income tax — originally meant to be a temporary wartime measure but kept on due to its enduring popularity with Canadian taxpayers.
It is a period in governmental history not often depicted in modern entertainment. Sure, we have the flashy antics of fighter pilot Billy Bishop careening from stage to stage, but what about the men who created the whole mess?
The folks at VideoCabaret have spent the last three decades or so exploring Canada’s quirky rulers, from Mackenzie King right up to the mighty chin himself, Brian Mulroney. Writers Michael Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor created The History of the Village of the Small Huts back in 1985 as a satirical guide to our nation’s history; The Great War is their comedic take on Canada’s involvement in WWI.
“It’s all played very camp,” says actor Greg Campbell, who plays Borden and several other characters in the play. “There’s a brothel with quite a lot of sex and several parts played in drag.”
Campbell is a veteran of VideoCabaret’s productions, having appeared in seven shows over the last nine years. He loves the company’s quirky takes on figures generally regarded with historical solemnity. For instance, Hollingsworth’s Borden is portrayed as an avid golfer who would rather be out on the green than sitting in Parliament.
“Borden didn’t really want to be prime minister, but he was elected because he was the least offensive and had the fewest political enemies,” says Campbell. “We play him as ponderous and indecisive, never wanting to offend anyone and completely reliant on (then-solicitor general) Arthur Meighen. He’s kind of like George W Bush, controlled by Dick Cheney.”
There are 41 characters in all, played by only seven actors — which makes for a lot of quick costume changes. Campbell takes only 30 seconds to go from Borden to a busty Scottish gal named Martha, whose compulsive knitting is slightly hampered by having only one eye.
“The style is very big and theatrical,” Campbell says. “The costumes and props are all oversized, and the generals have fruit salad pinned to their jackets instead of medals. It’s a riot to perform and the audiences eat it up.”
Despite the sight gags and ribald revelry, The Great War is a somewhat more sombre piece than VideoCabaret’s usual historical productions.
“All of the plays are treated satirically, but this one’s definitely more of a black comedy and a tragedy,” says Campbell. “Canada went into the war thinking it would be short like the Boer War. Instead, within the first three days of one battle we lost as many people as were killed in the entire Boer War…. 51,000 people were lost and 170,000 wounded.”
“Most of VideoCab’s plays are all about the politicians, but this one is different because we also focus on the stories of the foot soldiers. It’s still comic, but it becomes quite serious and moving when you think of the losses.”