Lill's play proves its quality in that it remains relevant - a reference to soldiers "fighting for democracy so that you and I can live in freedom" sounds strangely contemporary, though from a play written nearly 30 years ago and spoken by characters living in 1917
—Joff Schmidt, Theatre Reviewer
We don't really need the enormous letters spelling out "WAR" in the background of this production to remind us that there's plenty of fight in The Fighting Days.
But there they are, to remind us that Wendy Lill's play (first produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1983, now brought back by the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre) is about conflict. And while both play and production have rough edges, the return of The Fighting Days is both timely and welcome.
Lill makes a choice that was certainly bold in 1983, and still may surprise some - she's written a play about the women's suffrage movement in Manitoba which features famed crusader for the women's vote Nellie McClung (Marina Stephenson Kerr) - but she's not the main character, nor is she particularly sympathetically portrayed here. Rather, our protagonist is McClung's once protegee, later adversary, Francis Beynon (Sarah Constible). Francis begins as a naive farm girl, but comes to be a political force potent enough to challenge McClung.
Sarah Constible and Richard Clarkin (Bruce Monk)
While the two women fight together to get women the vote (which they accomplished in Manitoba in 1916), the First World War splits them on the issues of conscription - and whether immigrant women should be allowed to vote as well as British- and Canadian-born "Empire women" (McClung supported conscription and opposed giving immigrant women the right to vote - Beynon fought her on both counts).
And so The Fighting Days
becomes a play of battles - the fight for women's right to vote, the fight over which women should get to vote, and the fight over whether fighting for peace is logical... all set against the backdrop of one of the most destructive conflicts the world has ever seen.The Fighting Days
deals with big ideas and big events, but Robb Paterson's production is not helped by the fact that Brian Perchaluk's set is presided over by large letters hanging over the stage, spelling out words like "Freedom," "Democracy," "Women," and "Suffrage." Subtle, this ain't. And Lill's characters, while complex in their motivations, do occasionally feel like mouthpieces for competing ideologies.
These flaws, though, are largely outweighed by the play's, and production's, strengths - Paterson paces the two-hour show smartly, and his cast deliver fine performances. As George McNair, the editor of the newspaper where Francis works (and the only fictional character in Lill's play), Richard Clarkin delivers much-needed laughs as the crusty Scotsman with a heart of gold. And in a moving final scene, where Francis essentially speaks down the years to us, Constible finds a depth in the character that demonstrates why she's regarded as one of the city's best actors (and highlights Lill's writing at its powerful best).
Excepting the unnecessary slogans, Perchaluk's rotating set is cleverly designed, and his costume work gives the period piece an elegant look.
And Lill's play proves its quality in that it remains relevant - a reference to soldiers "fighting for democracy so that you and I can live in freedom" sounds strangely contemporary, though from a play written nearly 30 years ago and spoken by characters living in 1917. And the fact that Francis is, in one scene, literally prevented from presenting her point of view by being shouted down could easily be a commentary on the sad state of political discourse today.
Altogether, The Fighting Days
still has much to say to a Manitoba audience. And it's good to see Lill's play come home.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer