For their final production of the season, Hart House Theatre presents Oh, What a Lovely War!, a satirical musical that skewers the events and prominent figures of the First World War. Through a series of vignettes that range from slapstick to sentimental, the show employs popular songs of the era—with sarcastically altered lyrics—to comment on the absurdity of war.
When Allied Powers collide, clownish antics ensue; all the while sobering statistics and grim photos of war’s devastation are projected in the background. Modelled on Brecht’s epic theatre, this musical was originally performed in Pierrot costumes from Commedia dell’arte, drawing attention to theatrical artifice; that intellectual distance is maintained here.
To give this production a contemporary flair, director Autumn Smith has framed the performance as a video game. A large, disembodied head serves as narrator and game master to six players and their soldier avatars as they go through the motions of war. The main visual motif is a playful nod to the iconic 8-bit graphics of 80s gaming consoles, with a soundtrack that incorporates those familiar electronic bleeps and bloops.
With a mostly bare stage, the production relies heavily on projections. The dismal ugliness of the trenches is represented in low resolution, pixelated imagery and historical figures are displayed with their character class attributes. From farcical combat drills that play out like glitchy gameplay to the poignant reminders of loss as soldiers drop, one by one, from gunshots, there is a careful blend of comedy and pathos here.
Though the staging is dynamic and inventive, most segments are more clever than compelling. I frequently chuckled in appreciation, but my attention would drift as scenes played out. The Christmas truce in no-man’s land, a touching highlight of this production, is a notable exception. Falling snow and Silent Night provide chilling atmosphere for this stirring moment of peaceful connection between enemy troops.
With imaginative design elements and an energetic cast, there is no denying the significant talent and artistry on display here. Whatever urgency this musical might have had, however, is somewhat diluted by an innovative yet muddled conceit—that it’s all just a game. In her direction, Smith draws a connection between nostalgia for war heroism and a civilian thirst for escapist adventure. This idea is intriguing, though it burdens an already highly stylized work with another aesthetic layer without offering much insight into its themes. More importantly: if it’s all just a game, I’m not sure how deeply I should care.