The formula just might be working at this year's Shaw Festival. G.B.S.'s You Never Can Tell and
Dear Liar, a dramatization of letters between Shaw and his favorite actress, combine for classy, glassy comedy. However, not all reflections cut so fine a figure, proof positive of that being Emlyn Williams’ The Corn Is Green, which certainly lives up to its name. Still, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s festival (it runs until September) is off to a running start.
You Never Can Tell, George Bernard’s self-confessed potboiler, is perfect lightweight Shaw, lovingly served by a production that teases it into some substance with just the right amount of Shavian conviction. Plot, a necessary evil for Shaw, isn’t easily extricated from this wonderful web of character and event. But the weave, all color and spontaneity, is very deliberately worked. And depending on your angle of vision, you might respond to several themes: dentistry in the 19th century; the atmosphere of seaside resorts; primitivism on Madeira; or (slightly
more seriously) the suffocation of family life; the damage caused by repressed feelings, liberated woman and marriage under false pretenses; and, finally, the inverted snobbery of the servant class. Something for everyone.
The basic situation is preposterous, though it works like a charm: Mother, played with stately naturalism by Mary Savidge, leaves her husband for 18 years to raise their children (twittery twins Philip and Dolly and the glorious Gloria) with books on various kinds of modern emancipation. The family’s return to England occasions the coincidental appearance of one blusteringly dismayed father (Gillie Fenwick) and a suitor for the unapproachable eldest daughter. These two male additions also happen to be quarrelling landlord and tenant, patient and dentist. The disharmony is orchestrated into a luncheon of crossed purposes and mixed identities, smoothly conducted by William the waiter. Although played too reverently by festival director Leslie Yeo, he glides opportunely about with appropriate courses and condiments, postponing inevitable explosions.
The pursuit of Gloria by the penniless Valentine good-naturedly engages the Shavian ingredients of male-female confrontation. Gloria, victim of an emotionally unexamined life, struts and
poses until she trips over her own thoroughly unsentimental education. James Valentine’s Valentine outwits the young woman at her own game, parodying Shaw with great flair and affection, bringing real individuality to an already outrageously inventive play. The twins, more predictably realized by Mary Haney and Christopher Gaze, are nonetheless rib-tickling. They have some shattering lines, and Tony van Bridge’s direction is particularly clever in setting them on stools like a couple of impudent puppets during the final scenes of unravelling relationships. A delicate, delightful balance. A little truth, a little poetry, a lot of fun.
The star performer of Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty’s adaptation of the correspondence between Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, is language —Shaw’s gift and great love. Sheer verbal virtuosity defines the two, and thanks to Douglas Campbell’s energetic direction, they aren’t for a moment static: they talk to each other, words galvanizing the lives onstage. Their conversation over the years amounted to an act of love—theatrical, passionate, revealing. We see it as both bond and division between difficult friends. During their fierce battle over publication, she ruefully admits she can neither spell nor punctuate, nor write in his mind-boggling paragraphs.
What she can do, however, is talk—with the panache of a true original. A vigorous woman of good humor and honesty, actress Pat Galloway’s Mrs. Pat is every bit Shaw’s match. Regal and warm in red burgundy, dark hair piled atop her head, she gamely trades ironic observations for each of Shaw’s barbed witticisms. Colin Fox’s G.B.S. is all angular animation, his body somehow the absurd appendage of an overactive mind: mercurial, irascible, spritely.
The play’s highlights (and there are many) are frivolous, painful or merely petty. During the heyday of their infatuation, Shaw soars as foolishly and fondly as Valentine in You Never Can Tell. Their professional differences absorb them totally, but they labor and bicker only for love. When she marries, he searches for a Higgins to her inimitable Eliza in Pygmalion, blithely admitting: “All I ask is to have my own way in everything.” He calls her a veteran of the theatre, to which she retorts: “I won’t be a day over 39. I do have a daughter 28, but what of it? It happens in India all the time.” There are moments of mutual commiseration: his mother dies, her boy is killed in the war, one or the other falls ill or impecunious. Even so, liberating laughter and caustic common sense abound. (His solution to the wasteful sacrifice of sons in war is that women should stop having them.)
Emlyn Williams’ ’30s drama, The Corn Is Green, very strictly speaking a piece by one of Shaw’s contemporaries, is ridiculously remote from him in spirit. Even good melodrama is missing in this plodding rendition, directed by Leslie Yeo. The story of a Welsh mining lad in the 1890s brought to intellectual enlightenment by a middle-aged, spinster English teacher has had glowing treatment in the past, its plum acting role, Miss Moffat, taken on by Sybil Thorndike, Ethel Barrymore, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Mary Savidge’s crusty, domineering woman is kind enough, noble to a fault, but completely unbending. Even though the lines deny it, the relationship between Moffat and her wild, darkly talented protégé Morgan Evans (Peter Hutt) is full of provocative potential that, especially in a ’70s interpretation, demands expression. His inevitable rebellion against her relentless tutelage inspires only an icy bleat about time and money spent; Morgan’s heady experience at Oxford cannot induce one faltering human response.
If a director insists on choosing a play that proves to be dated, he must at least drive his version against the prevailing text so that there is tension, a striving for redefinition.
Besides, at this festival, what’s Williams to Shaw?
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