The curtain rose again last week on an ongoing saga: The Identity Crisis of the Shaw Festival. Of
the four opening productions—Pygmalion, Camille, The Desert Song, See How They Run—only one is by George Bernard Shaw. Once again, the burning questions are posed. Are Shaw’s plays good enough to support a festival? If not, what should be put on instead?
Although artistic director Christopher Newton threads a theme through each season (this year’s is women and their place in society), he still has no definitive answers to these questions. Also, his attempts to shake up the festival have been stymied. Last year Newton ran afoul of the militant burghers of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., who blocked plans to litter their immaculate green swards with a mammoth theatre tent that would have raised the festival’s seating capacity. In his position as director, he was reprimanded by Dan Laurence, literary and dramatic adviser to Shaw’s estate, for wanting to lop the epilogue off Saint Joan. Newton backed down, and this year’s “innovative” Pygmalion has Laurence’s condescending imprimatur stamped all over the programs. Still, ticket sales are good, and the board has extended Newton’s contract for two years: if the plays maintain high standards of interest and execution, doubts about artistic policy may not arise. This year’s openers, however, have done little to lay the old questions to rest.
As if to re-establish Shaw on his former lofty pedestal, Pygmalion opens with G.B.S. himself (Herb Foster) alone in the spotlight on a bare black stage. Director Denise Coffey was flown across the Atlantic to remount this colorless production, recently presented by London’s Young Vie company. Her main innovation has been to replace Shaw’s drawing-room sets with this leprechaun-like G.B.S. who triples as narrator, bit player and (by reading aloud Shaw’s stage directions) set designer.
Lacking only strings on his fingers to manipulate and dehumanize the characters completely, the Shaw character does succeed in alienating the audience from the play’s perilously fragile humanity. The story of how phonetics professor Henry Higgins accepts flower girl Eliza Doolittle’s request to teach her how to speak like a lady is familiar to all. But, overaccustomed as we are to the romantic sentiments of My Fair
Lady, Shaw’s original version reads like cold potatoes desperately in need of warming up. Instead, Coffey has locked them in the freezer. Barry MacGregor’s Higgins is witty, spoiled and insensitive; he is also devoid of any warmth, without which his relationship to Eliza (Nicola Cavendish) is meaningless. In Coffey’s humorless interpretation, Eli-
za’s attempt to stand up to the overbearing Higgins is reduced to a naked power struggle, an eye for an eye, but never a smile for a smile. Polemic or no, the last thing a Shaw play needs is to have its morals pointed.
Although Newton’s heart may not be in Shaw, it certainly does belong to Camille. He first staged the play—Scottish playwright Robert David MacDonald’s version of the love affair between the 19th-century novelist Alexandre Dumas and the courtesan Marie Duplessis—while at the Vancouver Playhouse and again last year at the festival. This affair was treated by Dumas himself in La Dame aux Camêllias and by Verdi in La Traviata. MacDonald incorporates sections of both works in his own Camille, surrounding its grim realism with their idealized sentimentality like coal in a diamond setting. The result is an opulent display of counterpointed emotions. It plays to a gilded gallery of high-society onlookers who both participate in and observe them in action. But the peripheral stories contribute both too little and too much. Not sufficiently integrated in a thematic way, they can be unnecessarily distracting: when Violetta (Robin Craig) lip-syncs Verdi, the music seizes
the emotions in ways that put the spoken word to shame.
Nevertheless, the lush evocation of Second Empire decadence, starting with the opening flash-forward when Marie’s possessions, including her corpse, are auctioned off, is richly sensuous compensation. The pure blossom of Marie’s and Alexandre’s affair then flourishes in the beds of whoredom, only to be crushed when she rejects him to save his family name. Choreographing his actors with surefooted grace, Newton casts an uneasy spell over this threadbare plot pocked with blithe anachronisms such as “Should I get a job?” and “Sod the baron!” Those lucky few—Goldie Semple as Marie and Michael Ball as her rich keeper, especially—whose roles are clearly defined, do best. Marie’s eventual death by consumption is violent and bloody, a soiled petticoat gratuitously revealing the undersides of decadence. For all its scintillating perversity, watching Camille is like eating five chocolate éclairs on an empty stomach—by the end you feel sick, full and strangely hungry.
Degradation of women on a lighter note marks Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song. The success of last year’s camped-up Rose Marie prompted the disinterment of this 1920s war-horse about harems, Moroccan rebels and the French Foreign Legion. Given Newton’s theme this year and the pointed criticism of hypocrisy in both Pygmalion and Camille, it is incongruous that the gruff stereotyped sexism has been left intact in this production as if the play were a sociological museum piece. Neither director Newton nor the cast, with the exception of Beth Anne Cole as the hotly pursued Margot, seems sure how seriously to treat these sultans who claim women should be taken by the hour and discarded. This uncertainty translates into sluggish staging and uninspired acting, notably by Terry Harford, who plays the dashing Red Shadow as if he lived in a little red schoolhouse. But the sets and costumes by Mary Kerr are works of genius. Her palette runs over with essence of Marrakesh; her kaleidoscopic patterns— whether embellishing a harem or a soldier’s turban—dazzle the eye. The dancing girl’s costume alone is worth the price of admission. If a drop of Kerr’s vivacious humor had sunk into the director, the Moroccan desert might really have come alive to the sound of music.
Unlike musicals, farces are impervious to camp, and Philip King’s See How They Run is typical of the genre. Set circa 1945 in that eternal Country Vicarage beloved of British playwrights, See How They Run showcases the comic talents of the festival’s excellent acting company: in particular,
Nora McLellan’s maid ascends from the grotesquely overblown to the sublimely hilarious. Mildly entertaining and eminently forgettable, the only question the production raises is why Adrian Brine was imported from Belgium to direct it: See How They Run could have been staged equally as successfully by any number of homegrown directors.
When foreign directors are invited to Canada to mount such silliness as See How They Run or such lacklustre work as Pygmalion, everybody loses. Guests look bad because they are not doing their best, while Canadians look bad be-
cause the implicit assumption in overlooking them is that they are not even up to these low standards. Although attention is now being paid at Shaw and Stratford to building and exposing Canadian actors, at Shaw the old colonial fight obviously has to be fought yet again on behalf of directors. This issue can be added to the growing list of concerns about the festival’s future, whatever the choice of plays. Although the writing is not yet on the wall, without hard answers to these questions Christopher Newton may find himself up against it in the year ahead.
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