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Ridge looks at First World War through the eyes of soldiers

Brendan McLeod’s Ridge is a solo show based on letters and songs written by Canadian soldiers in the trenches during The Battle of Vimy Ridge.
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Brendan McLeod will perform Ridge at The Metro Studio in Victoria on Thursday.

RIDGE

Where: The Metro Studio, 1411 Quadra St.

When: Thursday, Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 7)

Tickets: $25 from tickets.intrepidtheatre.com

Note: McLoed and The Fugitives will also perform Ridge on Sunday at Arts Spring on Salt Spring Island

The wartime subject matter — based upon letters and songs written by Canadian soldiers in the trenches during The Battle of Vimy Ridge — is sorrowful, to say the least. But in the hands of writer-actor-musician Brendan McLeod, the horrors of the First World War make for a moving piece of solo theatre in Ridge.

“You have to pay justice to the direness of it,” McLeod said of his monologue, set to music, which he wrote based on true-life soldier songs written in and around the 1917 battle. “There is nothing to be done about all the stuff that has happened. But there is a lot to learn from it.”

McLeod said he was motivated to write the 75-minute piece following a 2019 visit to the Guelph, Ontario, childhood home of Canadian solider John McCrae, who wrote the iconic poem, In Flanders Fields. The result is a combination of direct storytelling, verbatim theatre and live music, with an inhospitable war as the guiding force behind the project.

“I was trying to understand 15 year-olds being in the middle of trench warfare,” he said. “I wanted to figure out the picture a little more clearly. I wanted to look back at Vimy [Ridge], not from the government or military perspective, but the perspective of soldiers who fought in that battle and that war. That helped make it very human.”

Ridge is largely performed at traditional arts and culture venues — such as The Metro Studio, where McLeod will be performing Ridge for the first time in Victoria tonight — but he also gets requests to perform the piece in high schools across the country. Ridge is adaptable, too: For his Victoria performance, McLeod will accompany himself on guitar, banjo, and ukulele; on Salt Spring Island, the Toronto-based McLeod will be backed by The Fugitives, his Juno-nominated Vancouver-based roots group.

It’s important for Ridge to have the widest audience possible, he said. “I hope teenagers nowadays can hear these stories. There were 10,000 Canadian teenagers [who died] in the First World War, and 250,000 British teenagers. These were all kids under the age of 17 fighting in a war. It’s a nice reminder to ourselves, and to students.”

Facets of The Great War have been canonized, memorialized, and criticized countless times in popular culture, from Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory to Barbara W. Tuchman’s book The Guns of August. The period in history remains a fascinating one, though McLeod wonders if we are doomed to repeat it.

“Usually, you want a piece of art to be relevant,” he said. “But it makes me a little sad to see how relevant this show is, especially right now with what is going on [in Israel]. It’s the same problem, over and over again. It’s mind-boggling to me that humans can be so smart and so stupid at the same time.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com