Jimmy Walters is the director of Billy Bishop Goes to War, currently playing at the Jermyn Theatre. Emma Burnell spoke to him about why he chose to stage this play – about a real life Canadian hero of WW1 during the centenary commemorations.
Emma Burnell: Why this play? Is It just because of the centenary?
Jimmy Walters: The centenary is the main point of relevance. But it’s also very interesting looking at it from a Canadian perspective, because so many World War One plays deal only with British characters. I think when you look at it from a Canadian perspective it brings home the universal impact of World War One.
You start thinking about things like the Empire and just how many countries were affected and and were activated into the war as a result of other countries foreign policy.
EB: The play is quite “boys adventure” – lots of ‘derring do’ – which isn’t how a lot of plays about WW1 are pitched now. Was that a deliberate choice?
Jimmy Walter: [Billy Bishop] had a mentality where from the very beginning he was very reluctant. Not necessarily because of any political beliefs. I think he was just a very solo operator – very independent. He didn’t respond usually well to authority figures and when he when he joined the army I think one of the things that he really hated was having to report to a superior officer and having to be part of a massive unit.
What he found almost romantic, was the freedom of being up in the air without a superior officer. Now The irony of that is that it’s a lot more dangerous. When men went up in Reconnaissance Number Seven, their life expectancy was eleven days. So it’s actually far more dangerous than being on the ground.
And what’s interesting about the play is that it has I think very deliberately almost have a very childlike overcoats in engulfing a very dark subject matter. I mean the name ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ could be a children’s play – it’s told through very naive eyes – I think very deliberately – because he was completely unaware of what he was stepping into. It’s told from a purely innocent perspective and the horrors and the and the darkness and the bloodshed is a shock to the character. So as an audience you very much go on the journey with him.
Like any fighter pilot out there, or any soldier, you go into a ‘fight or flight’ situation, you sink or you swim, and you’re faced with having to look at men on the ground die in vast quantities of numbers. You have to either stay fighting and work out mentally how you were going to be able to cope with that.
That’s why booze was seen as a very big coping mechanism. So many people were so mentally affected after the war. That’s why he turns into someone who talks about how many people he kills all the time and how much he enjoys it because he in a weird way he has to. There’s no other way out.
EB: What do you want people to take away from the play?
Jimmy Walters: At the very end when when Billy breaks down and makes a very rallying war speech which is described as rhetoric (and the reason we put an audience applause on either side of that is to show the theatricality and that they aren’t necessarily his own beliefs). After the applause, he shuts the case and he holds his hands in despair and he asks questions like “You know most of us wonder what it was all for?”.
What really hit home for me was just how these people are in control and they are forced to arrange their head space to view events in a certain way based on other people’s decisions – whether politicians or the country’s foreign policy. For a lot of people the war didn’t end on November the 11th 1918. It stayed with people for a very long time and he was obviously still very affected after the war.
And also just how unnecessary World War One was. I mean if you compare it to World War Two, we were we were trying to stop a madman taking over the world. We really didn’t have a choice. With World War One, because of the expansionism of the British Empire a lot of countries like Canada were involved purely because they were a dominion of England. Our foreign policy affected them and just almost like a game of chess you know all these countries just started to activate their involvement and it resulted in so much bloodshed and so much mass slaughter. So looking at it again through a Canadian lens brings home the worldwide part of a world war.