The war is over. Celebrations erupt across Europe. This victory, though, has come at a great cost. And for the Netherlands, the fight is far from over.
David van Belle’s new play Liberation Days is more than a lesson in history, it is a meditation on perseverance in the face of extraordinary struggle. Although, despite its strong performances and stunning set design, Theatre Calgary’s latest production fails to leave a lasting impact.
The bulk of the play centers around the romantic relationship that develops between Canadian soldier Alex King (Byron Allen) and Emma de Bruijn (Lindsey Angell), a young Dutch woman. The language barrier is not the only thing that stands between them. Emma’s mother Aaltje (Valerie Planche) strongly disapproves of her daughter’s relationship with the Canadian. And if that were not enough, there is also the problem of Emma’s fiancee Jan van Egmond (Jonathan Seinen) – a Dutch soldier presumed to be dead by his community.
Meanwhile, the Canadian forces struggle to gain the trust of the locals they have been assigned to help with rebuilding. The clash between the two cultures plays out between Cpt. Miles Cavendish (Garett Ross) and the village’s religious leader Dominee Herman van Egmond (Duval Lang).
The play is narrated by Marijke Bos (Kelsey Gilker) – the village outcast who dared fall in love with a German soldier during occupation.
Van Belle juxtaposes the heaviness of war with light-hearted humour and romance. Dramaturgically, the use of humour makes the culture clash present within the play engaging and helps to bring the characters towards a common ground. And the young love that wins over adversity serves to remind us that a future after war, no matter how destructive it may be, is possible.
The problem, however, is that Van Belle insists on venturing towards the darker consequences of war, especially with the character of Jan, which leads to a jarring tonal shift in the play. The stakes are raised high when Jan’s unforgivable actions during the war are revealed. The humour of the play comes to a halt and the weight of war and its aftermath hits with full force. Frustratingly, however, there is no resolution or further exploration of this subplot which ought to have been introduced sooner rather than later where it feels like an afterthought. Jan disappears and Van Belle continues on with his glossy love letter to the past.
The performances, on the other hand, are solid. A unique feature of the play is the presence of both English and Dutch and the way certain characters alternate between the two. Certainly, some are better than others at these transitions, but the fact that these cast members learned Dutch for this production is highly impressive. It gives authenticity to the setting.
Angell has the challenge of speaking at length heavily accented English with Allen on-stage. She pulls off the task and brings a charming quality to her character. Allen and Angell are a joy to watch together. Though Allen can feel flat when the play enters its more somber period. Ross shines as the jovial Miles Cavendish whose antics leave the audience in stitches. Gilker is severely underused which is a shame considering she shows the most nuance on stage.
Set designer Cory Sincennes’s work here is beautiful. The debris and scars – left by artillery shells and bullets – across the scenery do not allow us to forget the violent horrors that have transpired – something that Van Belle’s script falls short of doing.
In the end, Van Belle plays it safe with Liberation Days. He offers us only glimpses of danger and peril. As a result, there lacks a sense of urgency to the problems he sets up. With its whimsical romantic plot and flat antagonists, the best way to describe Liberation Days is as a modern fairy-tale set in the weeks after World War II. This may sit well with some, but those looking for more in their war dramas may leave the theatre unsatisfied.
Theatre Calgary’s production of David van Belle’s Liberation Days ran at the Max Bell Theatre from Oct 14 – Nov 9, 2014.
For more information about the show, visit: http://theatrecalgary.com/plays/liberation_days/more_info/