Last Day, Last Hour: Canada’s Great War On Trial
When I approach a new theatre project these days, it is always cautiously. I ask myself, “What if this, for whatever reason, turns out to be my last show?” Will I be left satisfied that it was a fitting end to the countless hours spent over the past twenty-five years working collaboratively with other like-minded theatre folks? Will we be able to successfully create something unique and memorable beginning with nothing more than words on a page that await our ideas and collective talents to give them colour?
Some might find this a strange way approach a potential theatre project but it has served me well – not only in deciding whether or not to audition, but if cast, as a means to help motivate me to do my very best to bring all I have learned over the years about technique and discipline, to ensure my contribution culminates in my best work.
When I learned about Northumberland Players’ plan to stage an original play based on what some historians have called, “The Canadian Trial of the Century”, I was certainly intrigued. The more I learned about the bigger project, of which Last Day Last Hour: Canada’s Great War On Trial was being described as the “centerpiece”, the more interested I became. How great it would be to play a part in Cobourg’s ARMISTICE 18, a diverse program of Music, Art, Speakers, Film, Exhibits and Theatre brought together to create what was billed as Canada’s Largest Commemoration of the WWI Armistice Centennial. And what an honour it would be to be part of the ambitious program set to culminate on November 11, 2018 with the final performance of Last Day, Last Hour, exactly one hundred years to the day after the guns were silenced and the bells of peace began to resound throughout the world.
An opportunity to play a character drawn from Canadian history in an original play that explored the events of the final days of World War I from a Canadian perspective, certainly had potential for satisfying my “what if” criteria. Knowing the muscle of the Northumberland Players’ “think big” Board of Directors are backed by talented and experienced production teams and a well-established audience following, it became easy to see that this was a project of which I wanted to be a part.
After rehearsals began, the reality of what we had signed on for became much clearer. To think this was to be an easy show to stage would be overlooking the challenges. As any court house worker will tell you, court proceedings are not very often considered “exciting” and only on the rare occasion would they be described as “entertaining” – and when they are, it is typically for the wrong reasons! Would we be able to mine the script and bring to life the story of Sir Arthur Currie, the controversial Canadian small town war hero, fighting to reclaim his reputation, all the while working in an actual court room setting? Would the libel suit originating from a front page editorial in which Sir Arthur Currie is accused of ordering an attack on the Belgian city of Mons for his own glorification, with the November 11 Armistice already signed and just hours away, still resonate today? Could Fred Wilson’s small town newspaper, The Port Hope Evening Guide, formerly just a few miles down the road, rise again from obscurity? And would the tale of the highly contentious and frequently irrational Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Sam Hughes – the metaphorical thorn in Currie’s backside, even after Hughes’ death in 1921 – capture the imagination of a 2018 audience?
And what about staging the scenes that do not take place in the courtroom? How would the multiple movie-like cuts throughout the script transfer to the limitations imposed by an historic courtroom – a current day museum that has strict rules protecting the site by limiting what renters are permitted to “alter”. Among the many place setting challenges, were Sir Arthur Currie’s McGill University principal’s residence; a Peterborough Law Office; a Montreal train station; and the beverage room of Cobourg’s Dunham Hotel inhabited with half drunken veterans debriefing the day’s court proceedings. How could all be successfully conveyed within an actual courthouse in a way that would sustain interest and engagement? No one really knew, exactly – this was all uncharted territory and “would need to be worked out once we are on the set”. Lingering questions aside, once committed, we rehearsed with the belief and conviction that when we made it into what was to be transformed into our “theatre”, everything would simply fall into place like a well-practiced magic trick.
As we were closing-in on opening night, we had made solid progress but I think it is fair to say we were all a little on edge. Rehearsing in an open studio space, with a few working props and a handful of temporary costume pieces, on a purely “representational” set, will only take you so far – the mystical transformation that is live theatre, rarely fully gels under these conditions alone.
And then at long last, we finally went to “walk the set” in Cobourg’s historic Victoria Hall that houses the Old Bailey Courthouse where many of the actual events on which the play is based, took place some 90 years prior. Of course I had seen pictures of the courtroom and had tried to use them to inform my decisions in rehearsal but I will never forget the day we took the short walk from our rehearsal space in the Firehall Theatre over to Victoria Hall next door. As we came through the splendidly restored lobby, the oversized doors of the Court House were thrown open wide and for the first time we walked into and onto, our “set”.
I will always remember the feeling of Canada’s past that swept over me as my senses began to process the very place where the events we had been working so hard to portray, had taken place. In my own character research, I realized many of the actual words and phrases that were to be spoken by me and others, had been taken by playwright Hugh Brewster from archival records of the trial and used to artistically spin the tale that became the script we were about to perform. Whatever unease I had previously been experiencing dropped away without notice. The words of the past were mysteriously made more natural, more believable, more present – the truth all actors seek was living right here, within the walls of the room. It was clear the Old Bailey was the lead character who had just made her grand entrance. Once she had joined us, the missing element suddenly revealed itself – things simply began to fall into place. We were ready for final rehearsals.
With the subsequent layering on of period costumes, sound, lighting and final prop pieces, the magic was about to begin! Following an extremely well-received run as part of ARMISTICE18 which garnered National attention, we all knew we had been a part of something truly unique and special. What may turn out to be the first and only run of Last Day Last Hour, staged in the very room the events unfolded 90 years before, has left all involved feeling the well-earned pride and gratitude that comes with having worked together to create a show to be remembered as its own piece of Canadian history.
With sincere thanks to all who embraced Hugh Brewster’s theatrical vision: BRAVO FRIENDS!
Tom Quinn – Written for November 11, 2020