During the rehearsal process for the upcoming Capitol Theatre production Liberation Days, director Pat Henman has been routinely sharing excerpts with the cast from memoirs and letters written by people who lived through World War II in the Netherlands.
“A lot of us were unfamiliar with the whole Dutch aspect of the war, but people from the community as we’ve gotten more into the process have been coming in to share their stories with us,” Henman told the Star.
She even took the cast to sit down with Nelson war veteran Ron Cox, who shared firsthand accounts of his five years overseas and time in a prisoner of war camp. And the more they learn, the more they feel the importance of the work they’re doing.
But that doesn’t make it easy.
“There are so many levels on which to be challenged in this play,” said Lindsay Clague, who will star as Emma de Bruijn. “We’re connecting to part of Canadian history and we really want to be true to these people because obviously this represents real stories.”
During the course of the play Clague will speak in Dutch, English, and English with a Dutch accent — a convention established by playwright David Van Belle.
“It’s been a massive learning curve,” she said.
Thousands of Dutch women experienced what Bruijn does during the play’s action, seeing families members starve to death as their countries lay in ruins. She eventually falls in love with a young Canadian soldier named Alex King, played by Eli Geddis.
The pair both feel this opportunity is a unique challenge.
“Up until this point all my theatre history has consisted of dressing up as an animal or an old woman,” Geddis joked. “So being a romantic lead? This is a far cry from that. How do you make that jump?”
Henman answered for him: “Gracefully.”
The cast also includes Michael Calladine, Laurie Jarvis, Jordana Champagne and Michael Graham. Each of their characters is affected by the war in different ways, something Henman has invited them to reflect on.
“I feel like my character Marijke has a sort of Sliding Doors situation, where she goes out one door and Emma de Bruijn goes out the other,” said Champagne.
But Henman believes the play doesn’t cast moral judgments on her.
“I refuse to feel one of them is good, one is bad. It’s not about who went wrong, who went right. It’s circumstance. Some people might think what Emma goes through would be based on selfishness. Is that a good quality?”
Henman leaves that to an audience.
“This is what war does to people. It’s circumstances. It’s not good, bad, right, wrong.”
Geoff Burns, coming fresh from his gig directing local opera Jorinda, plays Miles Cavendish in the production.
“What’s fascinating to me is the relationships and the personal stories,” he said. “The history was familiar to me, but it has been good to delve into it at a greater depth.”
Clague said what they’ve learned is worldview-shifting.
“My character at the beginning of the play sees things in a black and white way. She’s still maintaining ‘these are the good guys, these are the bad guys’ and there’s a clear divide. And her arc throughout the play is realizing how impossible it is to maintain that sort of view of the world.”
The cast will tour around to schools, and a video of the production will be worked into the SD8 social studies curriculum. Youth are working with local filmmaker Amy Bohigian on the project.
“Putting it into the curriculum was really [Capitol Theatre] executive director Stephanie Fischer’s idea, to keep that connection with the schools. We’re now 70 years from the end of the war and I think we’re forgetting it a bit,” said Henman.
“We’re really on the cusp of this time of history, there being no more firsthand accounts of this war. The last World War I veteran died about five years ago, and that’s going to be happening for World War II too,” said Geddis. “This is a way to keep that memory and that history alive.”
Liberation Days will play at the Capitol from March 3 to 6.