The Shaw Festival stays true to its artistic roots—and still makes money
The pretty resort town of Niagaraon-the-Lake—a two-hour drive south of Toronto—seems more than a little money-mad these days. In the upscale tourist shops along Queen Street, a coat or a cup of coffee cost twice as much as they would back home. And at the sumptuously refurbished Prince of Wales Hotel, rooms now start at $375 a night. Even the bellboys, resplendent in their crimson tunics, have caught the fever. Glancing at a carved bas-relief of Chinese dragons that graces the lobby, one confides in an undertone: “We bought that at a museum in Beijing. It’s worth $78,000 (U.S.).” Perhaps he hopes to sell it.
Fortunately, there is a local antidote for all this. The annual Shaw Festival— whose season runs from early April to the end of November—is offering several dramas that take a scalpel to the idea that humanity’s highest calling is to get rich. And the most unlikely people are paying attention. The Royal Bank is sponsoring the current production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and the opening was attended by a phalanx of bank executives and their spouses. They sat calmly while the play’s hero, Captain Shotover (Douglas Rain), intoned: “Give me deeper darkness. Money is not made in the light.” And they appeared unperturbed while Shaw went on to expose the life of wealth and privilege as a nihilistic sham. At the end, they even joined in the standing ovation.
Not everyone has been so enthusiastic about Heartbreak House—or at least so polite. The Shaw’s artistic director, Christopher Newton, says he has received quite a few “cross letters” from people offended by the production. Sitting behind his cluttered desk, the silver-haired Newton, 63, speculates about why these people don’t like the
show—which has received excellent reviews. He believes that many of them are new to serious theatre—this year, the festival has sold 14,000 tickets to people who have never attended. “Many of these folks have been brought up on amplified musicals, and on the one-liners of sitcoms,” says Newton. “So they’re surprised to find that when
they look at such plays as Heartbreak House, they have to use their minds.”
Newton says his biggest challenge is figuring out what to do with this influx of new patrons. He could, he allows, make room for them by moving the festival’s light entertainment—the always sold-out thrillers and musicals such as this season’s A Foggy Day by George and Ira Gershwin—from the festival’s tiny Royal George Theatre (328 seats) into the large Festival Theatre (861 seats). But this would mean shifting more substantial dramas such as Heartbreak House—which really need a large stage, but which rarely sell out—into the Shaw’s other small venue, The Courthouse Theatre (324 seats).
There is no doubt what most producers would do: bump Heartbreak and rake in the bucks. But while the festival, with its $ 15-million annual budget, is prospering under Newton (it registered a $790,000 surplus last year), the artistic director believes that a single-minded pursuit of profit alone “would be a total abdication of our responsibility as an art theatre.”
So the festival seems safe, at least for now, from the money-mania that marks Niagara-on-the-Lake (with ticket prices ranging from $25 to $70, Shaw productions are still cheaper than most big-city musicals). This year, the pride of its lineup is definitely Heartbreak House, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki. Shaw completed the play during the First World War, but postponed launching it until 1920 because he didn’t want to undermine British morale. No wonder: this tale of what happens to a group of people during an English country-house weekend mercilessly exposes the hollowness of their lives. The powerful captain of industry, Boss Mangan (superbly played by Jim Mezon) finds himself reduced by his frustrations in love to a tearful, fearful—and inadvertently very funny— wreck. Meanwhile, the others try to lose themselves in flirtation and artsy bohemianism. But in the end, what truly excites them are the bombs falling from a German zeppelin.
As the house’s eccentric owner, Cap-
tain Shotover—a wild old man fuelled by rum and outrage—Rain gives one of the finest performances of his distinguished career. His Shotover is not the booming egotist of so many productions, but a wiry, incandescent ironist, whose madness is often expressed with a subtle turn of the head or an abrupt, wary stopping of his quick, self-absorbed walk—like a chicken sensing a fox. The production is greatly aided by Peter Hartwell’s set: the delicate paper and wood of Shotover’s workshop seem perpetually threatened by the storm clouds massing beyond the skylights.
Another fine show is director Neil Munro’s version of Harley Granville Barker’s 1910 satirical drama, The Madras House. Philip Madras (Blair Williams) wants to leave his position as an executive in his family’s high-fashion business—to do something more socially useful. But to get free, he has to wade through a gauntlet of challenges. Amusingly satirizing everything from bourgeois family life to fashion shows, the drama floats a complex, relevant debate about the freedom of women. Munro has broken up the speeches with long, ominous silences, and purposely turned several of the characters into caricatures, creating a highly contemporary nightmare world. And by slightly editing the end of the play, he leaves his audience with a deeply moving image of male-female equality.
Newton’s own production of Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy Easy Virtue is often very funny—while never losing the poignant undertones arising from the dilemma of its main character, Lari ta (Goldie Semple). Having married a much younger man, John Whittaker (Kevin Bundy), this cultured, independent-minded woman finds herself stultified by his highly intrusive upper-middle-class family. To make matters worse, she discovers that John is weak: what is she to do? Semple is wonderful as Larita, lending her a vulnerability and decency that wins sympathy for her extreme solution. And the actors keep the action spinning with the graceful inevitability of ballroom dancers.
Another—if slighter—success is
Daphne du Maurier s own 1940 stage adaptation of her popular 1938 mystery novel, Rebecca. Also directed by Newton, it focuses on a new, young wife, Mrs. de Winter (the tautly compelling Severn Thompson), who has trouble replacing her dead predecessor as the lady of Manderley Hall. The solid acting is powerfully seconded by Elizabeth Asseltine’s lighting: the many moods of spring infuse the set with the subtlety and vividness of the heroine’s own shifts between foreboding and hope.
Getting Married, Bernard Shaw’s witty 1908 play about the difficulties of getting up the aisle, is mostly talk. But Mezon, wearing his director’s hat, has made sure the palaver is funny, believable, and often wise. Too bad the dialogue in Charles Vidrac’s little 1919 drama, S.S. Tenacity, is by comparison as flat as a cold crêpe. Yet director Dennis Garnhum and his cast have wrung some memorable moments from this simple story about two French First World War vets who want to emigrate to Canada. The best scene comes before a word is ever uttered. As the owner of a waterside pub, Madame Cordier (Jennifer Phipps), and her helper, Therese (Catherine McGregor), prepare to open for the day, their actions—taking down chairs, carrying in fresh bread—achieve a timeless and moving beauty. The scene is a reminder that many of life’s sweetest pleasures—including simply looking—are still, mercifully, about more than commercialism. E3
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