"Waterloo" is a touching, nicely sentimental portrait of a very old man who was a hero at the Battle of Waterloo in the British forces. He drove a munitions wagon through a ring of fire in aid of surrounded comrades. It may have been an insane thing to do, but he survived and has lived quietly ever since.
By 1881, 66 years later in an English village, all that remains of this pinnacle event in his life are a newspaper clipping, military decorations tacked to a wall and the fairly doddering person the once courageous Cpl. Gregory Brewster has become. He is 91. A pipe, a chair, a bit of sun do for him now. His short-term memory is none too hot, though the pictures in his head of his Waterloo days with its smoke and din and terror remain vivid.
The director, Ian Prinsloo, of this one-act play, under an hour, helps us along in this by projecting a painting of the battle over the cottage interior at the start, accompanied by lots of booming war sounds. Then it all goes quiet and the picture fades, and quiet settles in. The tempo slows to a crawl in the stillness. And a door swings open, a slant of daylight into the gloom, and a young woman appears, tentatively advancing into the room.
This is Brewster's great niece Norah, a farm girl in the peak of health and goodness, who has come this very day to stay and care for him. The cottage is messy and none too clean. She sets about cleaning and tidying. She happens across reports of his stupendous bravery. It turns out to be a busy day.
A knock at the door: A young sergeant of the guards stationed locally having got wind that Brewster of the great heroic feat is still alive comes to pay his respects. He catches Norah's eye, she catches his. These two young people (played delightfully by Shauna Black and Gordon Rand) are at the other end of life from Brewster in his decline. There is a gentle comic element to their awareness of one another in the grave presence of great age.
Even the local company commander (Al Kozlik) chooses this day to drop by to say hello to the living legend. Ever dutiful, Brewster hauls himself out of a chair and draws himself up in a semblance of attention.
The performance belongs to Tony Van Bridge. "Waterloo" was written by Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes' creator) and first performed by the famed English actor Henry Irving in 1894, who then made it a signature piece. Irving was in his 50s at the time so had to work up more than 30 years to his own age to match Gregory Brewster's. Van Bridge has the advantage of being 81. The disadvantage is for a man his age he appears to be hale and hearty. He has to pretend to be 91 and in steep decline. Fortunately, Van Bridge is a wonderful actor.
He has done terrific portrayals in any number of plays that have brought acclaim to the Shaw Festival. To all of them, it may seem, Van Bridge brings a gentle yet incisive humanity that stands well inside the realm of real possibility, thereby all the more persuading us to go along with him. His portrait of Brewster is immaculately detailed and true. It is a picture of a man leaving life by inches, absent of regret or disappointment, an immensely dignified exit.
Arthur Conan Doyle's one-act drama about a very old survivor of the Battle of Waterloo. Directed by Ian Prinsloo, featuring Tony Van Bridge. Lunchtime theater through Sept. 19 in the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the- Lake, Ont. (800-511-SHAW).