Closeup/Theatre

Oh Shaw, poor Shaw

A plateful of muffets at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Ronald Bryden July 25 1977
Closeup/Theatre

Oh Shaw, poor Shaw

A plateful of muffets at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Ronald Bryden July 25 1977

Oh Shaw, poor Shaw

Closeup/Theatre

A plateful of muffets at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Ronald Bryden

The woman with the Miami tan fell on the neck of a middle-aged man in flowered trousers and white glacé loafers. “Do you mean you and Elaine have been back in Buffalo all this time and we never knew?” she cried. “Isn’t it crazy? We have to come to a foreign country to meet you!” They agreed how crazy it was and then proceeded to rhapsodize about the quaint, alien pleasures of the occasion that had reunited them: a matinee of an antique British farce of the Twenties, Ben Travers’ Thark, at the Shaw Festival Theatre at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

While its sister festival at Stratford has been piling up the biggest box-office advance sale and some of the best notices in its history, the 15-year-old festival in its idyllic little garrison-town on Lake Ontario has been having problems. Earlier this year, the Canada Council issued an ultimatum to director Paxton Whitehead: upgrade his festival’s quality, its content of Canadian plays and players, or the Council would start thinking about reducing his subsidy. Then the very week a party of critics from New York and London flew in to inspect the season’s openings at Stratford and Niagara, Whitehead was forced to postpone his major offering, the full fivehour version of Shaw’s Man And Superman, when a savage bout of gastroenteritis laid low its star, Ian Richardson of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. Left with nothing to do but see Thark and a poor revival of Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses, the international press departed muttering much the same thing the Canada Council had told Whitehead: Isn’t it time you got your act together?

To an extent, both were unfair. Richardson’s illness was genuine, and when he returned a week later, drawn and several pounds lighter, to play the shortened, three-act Man And Superman, he gave a performance worth crossing oceans to watch. (The postponed missing act, Shaw’s enormous dream dialogue Don Juan In Hell has now joined the repertoire for 14 performances through August 28). Of its kind, the production of Thark had all the quality a Canada Council could want—if what it wanted were period British farce. Whitehead’s real problem is the woman with the Miami tan and the man in flowered trousers. Too many of the Shaw’s customers are Americans from over the Niag-

ara border, crossing the river for a taste of foreignness—British plays delivered in British or near-British accents. Like it or not. the Shaw is to a great extent a lavish straw-hat theatre for American tourists who don't give a damn for Canadian content and prefer quality that isn’t too demanding. If Whitehead changed his act, would his Canada Council grant go up as much as his box office fell?

In some ways, his present act carries certain advantages. Because Stratford is now more “national” than summer theatre, every talent it imports, from Robin Phillips down, has to be fought and shouted over across Canada. Whitehead’s predominantly American summer-stock audiences don't care where he finds his star soloists so long as they’re the best. So that

this year, to play Shaw’s John Tanner in Man A nd Superman, easily the longest and probably the most demanding role in drama, Whitehead has been able to import Richardson—after Gielgud the finest virtuoso speaker in the British theatre.

Richardson delivers what he was imported for. Tanner is a man who loves talking as other men love gambling, drink or sex. Shaw’s comedy is Tanner’s gradual realization that he has mistaken one addiction for another: it was sex he cared about all along. All his glittering talk was an unconscious mating display to snare the demure ward, Ann Whitefield, who’s been stalking him in her own fashion through the play. Richardson plays him as an athlete of language, twisting his tongue through jungles of grammar like a con-

quistador’s cutlass flashing across the tangled isthmus of Panama. Fresh from a year’s run as Henry Higgins in the New York revival of My Fair Lady, he makes Tanner a Higgins who is his own Eliza—a talking prodigy, exulting in the power of his own articulacy, not realizing that every time he takes a paragraph to say “No” to Ann, she translates it, correctly, as “Yes.”

Time and again, Richardson wrings applause from his audience with breathdefying feats of articulation. It’s impossible to argue that his skill distracts attention from what he’s saying. Shaw knew that glittering eloquence was the crack in his socialist firecrackers, and for once he was laughing at himself—having just talked himself into marriage with Charlotte Payne-Townshend, he could admit that, for a Fabian in love, the medium is the message.

Carole Shelley makes a mistake in matching Ann’s calculation with Tanner’s instead of playing the iron naïveté Shaw wrote into the part. But she acts with style and her mating dance with Richardson has the elegance of two white peacocks circling each other on an Edwardian terrace. Tony van Bridge’s production is handsome and wittily paced, and its general quality should be high enough to satisfy Canada Council standards as well as open-necked customers.

But once the festival’s star turn is out of the way, Whitehead’s act starts to come apart visibly. It’s not that his other productions are uniformly terrible. His own production of Widowers' Houses happens to be, but Michael Meacham’s staging of Thark is as skilled and hilarious a revival of old-fashioned, double-take, spats-and-

brown-Windsor-soup English farce, with a performance by Whitehead (playing the central, monocled silly-ass) as lunging and rubber-legged as anyone could wish. The question is, who could wish it? And what has it to do with Shaw?

Over its 15-year life, the plays that have surrounded Shaw’s in the festival have nearly all been equally baffling choices. Why Molnár’s Guardsman! Why Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8.301 Why Edna Ferber’s and George Kaufman’s Royal Family, Brandon Thomas’ Charley's Aunt, Maugham’s The Circle and Alan Bennett’s Forty Years Onl Only two answers suggest themselves. They amuse visiting Buffalonians over the river for an evening of light

entertainment in cute British accents, and they fit Paxton Whitehead’s oddly nostalgic taste and aptitude for inter-war light comedy and farce.

The Canada Council knows perfectly well that the only way a Shaw festival can increase Canadian content is by employing more Canadian actors. Apart from that, what it’s really demanding of Whitehead is that he give it an answer to embattled nationalists by making his festival as serious and prestigious an international event as Stratford. The right mixture of Shaw and popular theatre could still do that. Like any good propagandist, Shaw aimed at the widest audience possible and his plays, as recent critics have shown, all have parodie roots in the popular theatre of his time.

A festival that showed Shaw’s debt to the melodramas of Dion Boucicault, such costume plays of the Nineties as The Sign Of The Cross or The Prisoner OfZenda, to William Jerrold’s old farce Cool As A Cucumber, on whose impertinent hero he admitted modeling his public manner, would delight Shaw scholars quite as much as casual summer visitors. Whitehead’s act doesn’t come together because his taste in popular theatre is later and more frivolous than Shaw’s. His choice of supporting plays suggests that, in his view, the only important connection they should have with any by Shaw is that both should be a Jolly

any Good Show.

RONALD BRYDEN