I caught the last performance (Sunday afternoon at 2 PM) of The Two Worlds of Charlie F Sunday March 9 at the Toronto’s for-profit Princess of Wales Theatre, owned and operated by Mirvish Productions. Canada is always fighting, culturally, for its slice of pie, and theatre is no different. Mirvish imports most of their works from New York and London. So Mirvish, like other big Canadian theatre companies, gives short shrift to Canadian playwrights. Canadian plays can be seen at smaller theatres, though they have smaller audiences, and a smaller budget, which of course, means a shorter reach to the public. Borders, flags, and nationalisms have done humans much more harm and really no good, so I do not sympathize with Canadian playwrights for any sort of nationalistic reasons, but for the fact that artists in a certain geographical location cannot get their works as widely produced in their own backyards thanks to US and British dominance.
And of course, only certain kinds plays are getting into Mirvish. Squeaky clean shit like Jersey Boys. Charlie F made the cut because it is patriotic storytelling, and in that respect, it too is squeaky clean. Personal stories of British soldiers who were injured on the battlefields in Afghanistan, a war that drags on that most of the public never thinks about. Eight of the roles in the play are performed by ex-vets, some with missing limbs. The other seven, by trained actors.
The play starts off with the noise of a bomb exploding, louder than any sound designer would normally set the volume in a play. We are seeing “Charlie F”, Lance Corporal Charlie Fowler (a role played by retired Royal Marine Cassidy Little), a Canadian who enlisted with the British forces, behind a screen, in a hospital bed, thrashing about and cursing at the nurse because he is trapped in flashbacks. He thinks he is still dealing with the Taliban. After a few visits from loved ones, he jumps through the screen and we see that he is missing a leg from stepping on an IED. He talks to the audience and the rest of the soldiers come out and stand with him and start identifying themselves and telling their stories.
The play takes us through the histories of the characters, their reasons for joining, their enlistments, their personal dramas with their lovers and loved ones, played by a trio of female actors who take on various roles throughout the play. Their time on the field, in some instances, the moment where they were injured: we see Rifleman Leroy Jenkins (played by Rifleman Dan Shaw) when he first lost both his legs. Some terrible musical numbers, though one witty tune in rehab where the vets are singing the names of their medications. And an exercise number where the bombs go off again. Soldiers come out and see that they have accidentally bombed Afghani civilians, the dancercisers playing the roles of the dead. It is pointed out that the soldiers often cannot tell the difference between civilians and “insurgents”. And the dance massacre is one of only two instances where we hear about the loss of life amongst those who are occupied. We never hear the word “occupied” or “occupation” in this show, though we are treated to a brief, sanitized history lesson with board and pointer from one of the actors in uniform, telling us of the three Anglo-Afghan Wars and of, “fighting the communist threat”.
And not only did the writer coast on the history of British occupation in Afghanistan, but both the writer and director seem to coast on the story and production. They are wounded soldiers and we know that the audience will eat it up, they seem to be thinking to themselves, so we really don’t have to work that hard. The writing is a bit flat, and the stories are cliched. British celebrities came out of a previous performance of Charlie F and praised the show. What other response could they give? To do anything less than rave would be flirting with the possibilities of public backlash and ostracism.
One must analyze the current political climate to review such a show: this occupation is continuing, and there are still 5,000 British Troops still stationed in the country. And the “support the troops” mantra is used by British, Canadian and the US governments to sidestep questions of whether or not this war should have ever taken place or if the occupation should continue. It also attempts to browbeat critics into silence. History is written by the victors, the colonizers, and by those who prop-up theocratic regimes and dictators. And the capitalists who make a killing on lengthy occupations. And the pain of war is documented, but for only one side.
But the absence of Afghani suffering is not my complaint with this play. It is the absence of the “other” in the thoughts of the soldiers in the play. Charlie F, in the final scene, addresses the audience and attempts to claim a universality for all on the globe who are wounded in war, but that really does not work. War injuries cannot be discussed in a vacuum, and all vets are not equal in the eyes of the British and US Empires. I believe that at least some of these soldiers think of those who were forced into occupation: the Afghani civilians who did not have the option of enlisting for any of this. But it was cleaner and easier for the playwright to not incorporate those thoughts, save for the aerobics massacre and the comment from Lance Corporal Maurilla “Simi” Simpson about the hard choice to gun down an armed child, to kill or be killed.
It was easier and cleaner, especially since the British military underwrote the production and its current UK tour, and the Canadian Armed Forces publicly endorsed it while it played in Toronto. Does anyone think that this production would be funded and supported by these militaries if it gave a human face to Afghanis? This step would lead to questioning the war and its architects. Maybe it would lead some to believe that these people lost their limbs for nothing. And if the British can fund this production, why can’t they provide adequate services for their vets?
While I do feel that some of the vets probably question the cause, or think about civilians who have perished, I am not naive enough to think that all of them would oppose the war and on-going occupation, possibly, none of them oppose it. There are the two opposite poles: opposing the war, and thinking about the legitimacy of the military and the British Empire it represents. An American example of a case like this would be Jeremy Hinzman, a conscientious objector who fled to Canada to evade deployment to Iraq and who is still, years later, waiting on word of whether or not he can stay in Canada. The other pole of thought would be the jingoism and hatred for any population that England invades, which, given the nation’s history, is a significant part of the world. And invasion, occupation, white supremacist conquest, and looting are all a significant part of England’s identity. Keep in mind: this country still has a Queen who, while a figurehead, is the Constitutional Monarch of sixteen soverign states, including Canada. In the words of American journalist Glenn Greenwald, “The political elite of [England] cling desperately to 17th century feudal traditions. Grown adults who have been elected or appointed to nothing run around with a straight face insisting that they be called ‘Lord’ and ‘Baroness’ and other grandiose hereditary titles of the landed gentry. They bow and curtsey to a ‘Queen’, who lives in a ‘palace’, and they call her sons ‘Prince’. They embrace a wide range of conceits and rituals of a long-ago collapsed empire.”
Regardless of whether these vets embrace anti-war internationalism or racist hatred of all Afghanis, or the more realistic options of anything in between, it would have been good to hear their views, it would have made their accounts richer, which would have made a much more engaging play. We do hear about Simi as a child in Trinidad and Tobago, dreaming of growing up to join the military and living near the Queen after Elizabeth came to her country on a state visit. Does she still possess such warm feelings? (Simi’s leg was injured while she was stationed in Germany in 2010. She did three stints in Iraq, but never served in Afghanistan).
But of course, such a play would never be performed at Mirvish. Keep in mind, My Name Is Rachel Corrie was going to be performed at Canadian Stage Company and then-Artistic Director Martin Bragg was working to secure rights to the play in 2006. CanStage soon backed out, the official reason given was that the work itself was “flat”, but I have a source in the Ontario theatre community who says that CanStage board was about to ax Bragg if he did not kill the deal. And there is this account that Socialist Equality Party published on-line. (Bragg left Canstage in 2009 and is now Executive Director of the Alberta Ballet).
Rachel Corrie, the 23 year old peace activist murdered by the IDF in 2003.
Plays like My Name is Rachel Corrie get pulled while the establishment welcomes a sanitized, lazy piece that asks no real questions, and doesn’t penetrate the true depth of war or the losses for any of its victims (despite having lots of material to work with by having eight real-life vets in the show), and is used as a promotional project for the British military.