Charles Aitken talks about BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR at Southwark Playhouse
Name: Charles Aitken
Name of show: Billy Bishop Goes to War
Venue: Southwark Playhouse
Dates of run: March 13 – April 6
Can you tell me about the show?
Billy Bishop Goes to War is a funny, fascinating, moving and uplifting biopic for the stage. It’s a zero-to-hero dramedy featuring original music and songs that tells the true story of Canada’s first world famous hero. Born at the turn of the 20th century in the small town of Owen Sound, Ontario, the play charts Billy Bishop’s extraordinary life from rebellious student in Canada, to reluctant soldier in England, and ultimately, to renowned flying ace in France during the First World War. Told directly to the audience by two actors playing Billy at opposite ends of his life, Billy Bishop Goes to War is a gripping account of bravery, comradeship, and enduring love set against the backdrop of war and man’s early attempts to conquer the sky.
What part do you play in the show and where does it fit in to the story?
I play the young version of Billy Bishop as well as a handful of characters that he meets on his adventure. These include a septuagenarian aristocratic lady, a sexy French cabaret singer, and a brilliant, idealistic young British pilot. But my main role is Billy. He’s a drinker, a charmer, and a merry rule breaker. Think Prince Hal before he rejects Falstaff. Swaggering, brave, and fond of treading the fine line between heroism and foolhardiness, Billy was the Han Solo of his day. Allergic to straight lines and traditional rules, Billy navigated his own course on the ground and in the air.
The play tells the story of how he went from a failure at school to becoming the most decorated soldier in the British Empire. With 72 confirmed victories in the air, Billy Bishop, or “Bish” as he was known to his mates, was one of the world’s most famous flying aces by the end of WW1, second only to Germany’s notorious “Red Baron”. Unlike the Baron von Richthofen however, Billy has been mostly forgotten on this side of Atlantic. Despite being friends with Howard Hughes, sharing the screen with James Cagney in a Warner Brothers movie, and having a major airport in Toronto named after him, Billy Bishop has faded into the margins of history. Our play hopes to introduce a new generation to this charming, cheeky, high-spirited force of nature who may or may not be one of recent history’s greatest unsung heroes.
What’s your favourite part of the whole show and why?
My favourite part of the show is a moment in the second half. Up until this point the show has been very high energy, with lots of comedy and up-tempo songs. However, at this point we slow everything down so I can deliver a moving poem about a fellow pilot. It’s done very simply.
No music. No movement. I just stand in one spot, talk to the audience, and let the words do all the work. Whilst the poem is about one of England’s most celebrated pilots, it somehow captures universal truths about love, loss, and the human cost of going to war. When I finish the poem you can literally hear a pin drop in the theatre, and I have been surprised on several occasions by the spontaneous applause it has provoked.
What has been a highlight of your career so far?
I would have to say that Billy Bishop Goes to War is right up there with some of my favourite moments in my career thus far. I’ve had very challenging roles, whether it was Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello, for which I was nominated for an Ian Charleson award, or Edgar in an RSC production of King Lear, which toured to New York. Neither of those roles, however, required quite as much mental, emotional, and physical energy as Billy Bishop does. But if I were forced to pick just one moment so far I would say it was shooting an HBO show a few years ago called The Knick starring Clive Owen, in which I found myself sitting in a New York restaurant playing a scene that required me to eat oysters. One of the oysters slipped out of my mouth as I tried to finish my final line with a flourish and thoroughly upstaged me. The director, Steven Soderbergh, asked me in an amused and droll tone if I would like to do another take. “Yes please!” I replied, slightly red-cheeked. I couldn’t believe I was receiving direction from an Oscar winning film director and being paid to eat oysters! What an extraordinary day!
Who are your biggest inspirations inside and outside of the industry?
My biggest inspiration within the industry are the generally great actors, from movie stars like Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, to countless contemporaries in the theatre. I recently watched a superlative production of Macbeth at the Globe’s Sam Wannamaker theatre. The director, Rob Hastie, conjured a sexy and mysterious production that was genuinely creepy. The actors were all faultless and an absolute vindication that colour and gender blind casting is the way forward, particularly when it concerns the classics. But I must give a special shout out to my old drama school classmate and now artistic director of the Globe, Michelle Terry. What she is doing there, from casting decisions to true company lead productions to making the Globe a child friendly and mother-friendly space is truly inspiring. Not to mention that her sigh in the Lady Macbeth’s mad scene will no doubt be remembered right up there with the greats from her namesake Ellen Terry to Judi Dench. Michelle can do it all!
Outside of my industry I find inspiration in the usual places: music, art, literature. With regards to Billy Bishop, I’m particularly indebted to three works of non-fiction: Bishop’s autobiography Winged Warfare, his granddaughter Diana Bishop’s biography Living Up To a Legend, and the military historian Brereton Greenhous’ The Making of Billy Bishop. All three books provided me with invaluable information and insight into the complex, mercurial, and deeply charming man that was Billy Bishop.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
My pre-show ritual generally involve a very light meal from M&S. I always aim to get to the theatre a good hour and a half early, although my various stage managers and cast-mates will tell you this is often not the case, despite my best intentions. On Billy Bishop though, I have been fairly consistent. It’s a very demanding show physically and vocally so I have to make sure I’ve done all the proper stretches and warm-ups before curtain up. I also run through all the songs in the show with my co-star Oliver Beamish. Then it’s to the dressing room for a mouthful of BBQ hula hoops and into costume.
If you could only listen to one song for the rest of your life what would it be?
A Kind of Magic by Queen.
What’s so special about this production and why should audiences come to see it?
Billy Bishop Goes to War is a hilarious, uplifting, edge-of-your-seat tearjerker that will make you want to get out from behind the safety of your screen and take a flying leap into the great unknown that is life. It’s also a story for all ages. The younger ones in the audience will feel like they’re actually in the cockpit of Billy’s fighter plane, defying gravity and dodging bullets in death defying feats of flying. Members of the audience of an older vintage will enjoy not only discovering a fascinating but sadly forgotten figure from history, but will also experience a moving, insightful, and uplifting meditation on the universal challenge of growing old—how we struggle to make sense of the dramatic twists and turns that mark a life well-lived. Ultimately, Billy Bishop Goes to War is a cracking good story with great tunes. Like any good yarn, it’s packed with funny moments, scary moments, upsetting moments, fist-pumping moments, and some moments that may strike some in the audience as just too good be true. But that quality of the unreliable narrator is just one more intriguing element of the complex, charming, seductive, and extraordinarily brave man that was Billy Bishop. I can’t wait for audiences to fall in love with him like I have!
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