Dec 10-12, 7:30pm, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
How long does it take to tell a story, to weave its threads into a narrative knot? And what happens, once the last strand is tied, if the story is all wrong? How long then, until the fibres are shook loose? Until the tale is told properly?
It’s been 104 years since the Halifax Explosion, the largest human-made explosion of its time, which killed 2,000 haligonians and injured 9,000 more. It’s also been 104 years since public scrutiny sparked a red-hot courtroom, making Francis Mackey, pilot of the Mont-Blanc, the scapegoat of public opinion for two boats exploding in the harbour. “One of my favourite lines from the transcripts is a lawyer saying, ‘Well, and obviously you didn't expect that two ships in broad daylight would collide in the harbour.’ And a senior ranking official says: ‘Well, no, that happens all the time. Ships collide. You don't expect that a ship will explode because they collide,’” says Ben Stone, co-artistic director of Zuppa Theatre.
Stone is directing a re-examining of Halifax’s most famed historical snippet, re-knitting the explosion into something truer than before: A new play titled At This Hour, which is showing, fittingly, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic this weekend. (See it nightly at 7:30pm until Dec 12.) With dialogue lifted directly from courtroom transcripts and stuffed with enough facts to be billed as “documentary theatre”, it’s the sort of storytelling that makes history urgent and vivid, removing the pane of glass covering the past so audiences can feel it.
“We get to do this in the museum, which for me, there's just so much history. There's ships everywhere. It really does make you put it into context. We got the ocean right behind us, and the harbour. I think we're just so lucky to be near where the explosion happened,” says Elizabeth Morris, an actor in the show, while Stone nods next to her.
“To feel that: Being at the museum and being on the harbour, and how the past affects what happens in the present, and how present affects what happens in the future. And therefore what happens in the past affects the future. So looking at the explosion through that lens,” Stone adds, explaining how reverberations of the explosion are still felt today. Viewing the catastrophe “through the lens of British imperialism and how World War One began that decline of British imperialism—but how in Halifax, we're still very much in that reality: We're still seeing Union Jacks all over the place, we're still hearing ‘God Save the Queen’ being played. We're still standing for the lieutenant governor when they come to cultural events.”
Zuppa’s restitching of events doesn’t colour Mackey the villain, but does capture the red-hot panic and burnt-blue anguish the explosion left in its wake.
The production is also breaking new ground in inclusivity, with a cast composed of sighted as well as low-vision actors and hearing as well as deaf actors. The show was produced in association with the Maritime Deaf Theatre Troupe and features a partially sighted consultant who reworked the script to be more inclusive. (This means ASL interpretation and projected subtitles will be part of each performance, and the venue is fully wheelchair accessible).
The inclusivity is fitting thematically, since the Explosion caused such mass blindness (and deafness) that it led to the founding of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. But don’t mistake this groundbreaking production for only doing it for the story: “I want people to see that that's the new normal. I want people to see that this is what theatre should look like,” Morris says. “I want [show-goers] to say, ‘Oh, deaf actors. They exist. There are deaf actors that work. That just, there's language and culture and a community and the whole deaf community.’ I want that to be impactful. I want them to remember that forever.”