Opening tonight at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: INTO THE BREACH, Ian Bowater’s new play, commissioned by the ArtsCenter for its season examining World War I. Bowater, who is English and has had a long career in theatre and film, has crafted a thoughtful play centered on a group of “Shakespeare’s Boys” and their schoolmaster from Stratford-on-Avon, who all leap or are pulled into the vortex of the war.
After Taylor Mac’s flippant brief gloss on WWI in his recent performance in Chapel Hill, Bowater’s play is refreshingly serious. Its characters are more types than individuals (I saw a dress rehearsal), but they are real types (including the very English proto-Nazi), and through them we can glimpse the way those types both shape and are shaped by large historical forces. They are the men–the glorious dead–whose names etch memorials in every English village and town, and in towns all over the then far-flung British Empire.
The boys studied and played Shakespeare’s Henry V at school, and in this play, they study it again as they prepare a show for the other men at a hospital not far from the battlefront. The play reveals different things to the men now, and they find the leaden tones along with the golden in the great speeches, as they grapple with the (im-)morality of Realpolitik. They are joined by Laurel Ullman as Nurse Ailey/the Angel of Mons.
Director Gregor McElvogue, also British, brings his skill at eliciting both the brutish and the bruised from the performers, and with his usual careful reserve, gives us a fresh context for the war that did not end all wars. The waste of that war becomes more poignant and pitiful when we see it driven (in part) by the pride of “the men of Agincourt,” “the band of brothers,” who had so recently celebrated the harvest with song and beer.
The big surprise of the show is the songs. The cast does a wonderful job, from the harvest songs to popular ditties (inky-dinky parlez-vous!), and the song and dance routines make the pall all the darker in contrast.
The show runs Oct. 10-12 and 16-19.