The secret of enduring success in both business and the arts is solid research and development. In his sixth year as artistic director of the Shaw Festival, Christopher Newton is ensuring that the highly praised theatre company will maintain its momentum. With such exploratory ventures as a proposed video workshop, a winter season of modern plays in Toronto and last year’s five-hour adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newton is sowing the experimental seeds for future creative harvests on the Shaw’s main stages in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. But last week’s opening productions revealed that those stages need more immediate attention. Although Newton’s production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House is daring and brilliant, the pocket-edition musical Naughty Marietta by Victor Herbert and Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot are hollow, sentimental works so badly executed that they do not deserve to appear at the festival.
In his own direction of Shaw’s plays, Newton seeks out the undercurrents of mood and desire that the playwright’s verbal wit and facility often obscure. With Heartbreak House Newton and designer Michael Levine have played on the allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in
Shaw’s parable about the crisis of European civilization in the First World War by setting it in their own version of Wonderland. In his stage directions Shaw called for the country home of the ancient Capt. Shotover (Douglas Rain), who sold his soul to the devil in Zanzibar, to resemble a ship.
But Levine has created a surreal rhapsody in white : tottering stacks of books reach up to the improbably high ceiling of an almost bare room. Inside that suggestive hollow space, the actors deliver their speeches from or around eight randomly placed chairs.
As Shotover’s daughters, Ariadne Utterword (Fiona Reid) and Hesione Hushabye (Goldie Semple), spend a weekend tormenting husbands and would-be lovers, Shaw places human relationships—sexual, marital, financial and political—under a comic microscope. The focus is Hesione’s friend, the ingenuous Ellie Dunn (Marty Maraden), who by the play’s end renounces prim respectability and her fiancé in favor of
a platonic marriage with the unconventional Shotover.
Newton’s rigorous staging and the solid cast—Rain, Reid and Robert Benson, as the crumbling capitalist Boss Mangan, are superb—gives full weight to Shaw’s extensive observations of human nature. The production demands much of the audience, and unfortunately several important lines are inaudible. But the dreamy, unrealistic set is the perfect blank screen on which to project Shaw’s hidden forces of desire. The final act is an astonishing theatrical coup: Levine finally realizes Shaw’s nautical conceit (ship of state, ship of fools) by turning the stage into an enchanted deck surrounded by green hedges trimmed into waves. As Hector Hushabye (Norman Browning) ponders the fatal human paradox that often pairs sexual satisfaction with mutual destruction, a German air raid triggers a feverish emotional climax. With magnificent lighting from Jeffrey Dallas, Newton and Levine conjure up an unforgettable apocalyptic vision of a world irrevocably in love with death.
One for the Pot, by Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton, is quintessential theatre in an entirely different mode—the 1985 version of the festival’s annual foolproof farce. The play also marks the return to the Shaw of its most acclaimed actor, Heath Lamberts, after a year’s absence. One for the Pot stands on the talent of the actor playing four identical quadruplets with the surname Hickory Wood. The role puts immense physical demands on Lamberts—all four turn up in one evening to claim a legacy of $10,000—but he hams and cavorts at will, intoxicating both himself and the audience. Cooney’s farce is comedy distilled to the basic elements: running gags, vaudevillian standup comedy routines, ad libs to the audience and outrageous mugging, cranked up to breakneck speed by Chris Johnston’s agile direction.
Although Lamberts’s comic genius appears to carry the show singlehandedly, the four Hickory Woods demand—and get — an excellent straight man in the canny solicitor Charlie Barnet (Barry MacGregor). An ideal team, Lamberts and MacGregor revitalize old music-hall routines as if they had never been performed before.
But not even Lamberts would be able to salvage Naughty Marietta, a 1910 cross between an operetta and a musical that Newton has crammed into the tiny Royal George Theatre. In doing so, he
has hacked an already tangled plot about a countess who flees to Louisiana to escape from the French Revolution into hopeless confusion. To work at all, Marietta demands the distractions of a full-scale musical production; in the Shaw version Peter Wingate’s design and Duncan McIntosh’s choreography are especially cramped and uninspired. The play’s attitude to love and marriage is stilted and distasteful, and Newton’s condensed camp staging only makes them more unpalatable.
The analysis of good and evil in Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot is equally false and sentimental. Written in the early 1940s, the play is a vision of postwar Europe which pits capitalists controlled by greed and their own machines against the poor who guard earth’s creatures and still believe in the power of the imagination. When a multinational wants to drill for oil under a Paris sidewalk café, the beloved local eccentric, Aurelia (Irene Hogan), leads the fight to save the city. Traumatized by an unhappy love affair, Aurelia lives in the past. By dropping the evil capitalists into the sewers, at least in her own imagination, Aurelia liberates herself and her countrymen from the nightmare of history.
Giraudoux wrote Madwoman while serving as minister of propaganda in the French Vichy government, and the agony of his own compromise is evident in the play’s pathetic oversimplification of the potentially tragic issues: after flushing away her opponents Aurelia simply says, “They were wicked, and wickedness evaporates.” The idea that the real world would behave according to the rules of the imagination might have reassured Parisians in 1945 when the play was first produced, but director Wendy Toye’s position that it has any social relevance today is absurd. Although Hogan creates a dryly addled Aurelia, her performance and Toye’s staging ignore the pathos in the madwoman’s inability to distinguish the real from the imaginary.
With Newton blowing hot and cold and no directors of vision ready to replace him if he leaves, the mixed success of Shaw’s opening week points to a future crisis. The festival also has not been able consistently to retain the services of superior directors from other Canadian theatres. Despite fine work in the past from Paul Bettis and David Hemblen, the Shaw’s formidable acting talent is available on a regular basis only to Newton and directors from abroad. Still, Newton has time to shore up the festival’s artistic assets and groom a possible successor. But given their invigorating collaborations so far, he and Shaw should continue to make strange bedfellows for many more years to come.
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