When Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival, asked Neil Munro to direct the 1993 season opener, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, he knew that the resulting production would raise eyebrows. Munro, 42, has a reputation as a wild man of Canadian theatre. For a 1991 production of Hamlet in his home base of Toronto, he brutally cut and rearranged Shakespeare’s text, staging the entire play in Hamlet’s bedroom—a claustrophobic den piled high with video equipment and human skulls. Munro has also made waves at the Shaw Festival. Last year, he gave Elmer Rice’s 1931 drama, Counsellor-at-Law, the look of a black-and-white film: even the
actors’ faces had a greyish cast. And to increase the realism, Munro had them speak at times in nearly inaudible murmurs. “Neil’s not afraid of pushing towards the edge,” said Newton, “of burrowing into a moment to find what it’s about. He’s incredibly truthful.”
Munro’s version of Saint Joan, Shaw’s retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, is jaggedly contemporary. Instead of the usual 15th-century armor, Joan (Mary Haney) wears a paratrooper’s uniform and carries a submachine-gun. In the famous interrogation scene, after the French have turned against her, her haggard face appears on stacked video screens while her prosecutors growl their questions into microphones. Munro has also added a wordless prologue
in which soldiers mow down a group of anonymous civilians. The bearded, voluble director says that he was thinking a great deal about Bosnia while staging the drama. “If I had set the play in the 15th century, the audience could sit back and say, ‘They certainly were pigs back then,’ ” said Munro. “People might think it’s unusual to burn a 19year-old girl—but they’re doing it all the time in Yugoslavia. The only difference is, now they rape them first.”
Munro’s brutal and ultimately deeply moving Saint Joan is by far the harshest of the current offerings at the 32nd annual Shaw Festival, which takes place in Niagara-on-the-Lake in southwestern Ontario. The rest of the summer’s playbill conforms more to the usual pattern of dramas that entertain without being overly disturbing. Newton himself has directed Henry Arthur Jones’s 1882 melodrama, The Silver King, whose sprawling plot line, huge cast and ambitious sets give it the visual richness of a Dickens novel. The festival is also staging the 1949 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with its enduring hit song Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, as well as the 1943 Agatha Christie thriller, And Then
There Were None. Five plays open later in the season, including Shaw's Can dida and The Man of Destiny. Among
the August offerings is Harley Granville Barker’s The Marrying of Ann Leete, an 1899 historical drama set on the eve of the Napoleonic Wars—and directed by Munro.
Burly and direct, Munro (who is married to actress Carole Galloway) speaks with the air of a perpetually embattled man. But he laughs a great deal, too, dissolving tensions with a smoke-roughened chuckle. Born in Scotland to working-class parents, he arrived in Canada at the age of nine. When other children mocked his accent, he quickly lost it. Munro recalls that he got into trouble a lot as an adolescent, adding, “If I hadn’t found acting, I don’t know where I’d be.” When he was 19, he entered the National Theatre School in Montreal. Now, Munro divides his time between acting (he earns much of his income from films and television commercials), directing and writing. Earlier this year, his play Bob’s Kingdom earned raves and a six-week run at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. A dark comedy in the tradition of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it concerns a man who refuses to accept that he is dead.
Munro believes that Saint Joan is about those periods when a society stands paralysed by its own stale way of doing things. In Shaw’s play, the French and English have been battling each other for decades for control of France. The French seem powerless to make any headway against the invaders. “Then, pop!” Munro said, making a sound like a wine bottle being opened. “The species produces Joan as a way out of its predicament. Shaw’s play is about the audacity of this single human being in leaping beyond all accepted theologies or political thought and kicking things back into gear.” Joan galvanizes the French and, revolutionizing their way of fighting in the process, begins to drive the English back. But in the end, powerful Frenchmen, fearing that Joan’s individuality and popularity threaten the feudal order, allow her to be burned as a heretic. “She saved them and of course they devoured her for it,” Munro said with a rueful chuckle.
Munro has directed Haney to play Joan as a plain, self-effacing schoolgirl who stutters and has crying fits as she talks the French nobility into following her. He has also instructed all his actors to avoid the grand rhetorical style usually used in performing Shaw, in favor of more low-key and realistic speech. As a result, the intellectual excitement of the playwright’s sweeping arguments is sometimes lost. But the production gains a hard-hitting intimacy that comes to a climax in the interrogation scene. There, Haney’s strong performance touches the sublime as she offers up her haunted, desperately sincere face to the pitiless gaze of the video camera, which transmits every nuance of her pain to the monitors. Rarely has the struggle between individual conscience and the collective will been so powerfully presented.
Saint Joan takes place in a war-tom landscape centred on designer Cameron Porteous’s two enormous pylons. In the first scene, the T-shaped monoliths lie toppled on
their sides. Later, they appear revolving against the sky like a form of radar. And finally, they stand upright to create the pillars of the cathedral in which the triumphant French king is crowned. In their hugeness and ambiguity, the pylons are a brilliant touch. They signify the resurrection of the French, and suggest a world where the works of humankind are threatening to dwarf and overwhelm their makers.
Coincidentally, a similar viewpoint has inspired Leslie Frankish’s mesmerizing set for The Silver King. Here, the brutal force of Victorian industry is suggested by a huge flywheel turning endlessly in the background of the melodrama. Behind the wheel, two large counterweights rise and fall with monotonous regularity. On the other side of the stage, iron catwalks (hinting at the interior of a prison) offer glimpses of a sootbedevilled London. All those elements have a dark, permanent quality: they represent the basic, cruel truth of economic reality. The characters of the play, meanwhile, live in a series of brightly colored cardboard houses and cottages that are lowered into the foreground. The lives within are ephemeral and illusory, the flimsy dwellings seem to say: they are mere fodder for the grinding of the wheel behind.
Frankish’s set provokes almost as much applause as the actors. Newton has coaxed many vivid performances from his large cast of players, who deliver the moral simplicities
of Jones’s play with a seductive sincerity. The story concerns a young father and husband, Wilfred Denver (Stuart Hughes), who is framed for a murder by a rich jewel thief, Capt. Herbert Skinner (Barry MacGregor). Skinner is a melodramatic villain to the hilt, the sort of fellow who turns out poor widows with a snarling, “I don’t like people starving on my property!” At the opposite moral pole stands Denver’s virtuous wife, Nelly (Sharry Flett), who stands by her man even when he begins to believe that he committed the murder. Predictably, the Forces of Good triumph in the end, but not before Newton’s production has caught both the high energy and fragile optimism of Victorian theatre.
The Shaw ensemble gives its most highly polished performance in And Then There Were None, an intellectually tidy mystery that puts more stress on the mind and nerves than on the emotions. Ten guests are invited for a weekend on an island off the coast of Devon. Their host, however, does not show up. One by one, the guests are murdered. Both the mystery and the horror mount as they realize that one of their number is the culprit.
Faced with such a situation in real life, most people would probably lock themselves in their rooms. But being Christie characters—and thoroughly English—the guests in And Then There Were None keep the conversation going on a high level. Some of the English accents in the production are unconvincing. But the characterizations are sound, the suspense flawlessly maintained. And designer Porteous mirrors the psychological changes within the snug, panelled living room with the huge evergreen and moody sky that appear outside.
There is little psychology to speak of in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, an old-fashioned Broadway musical where the female characters are expected to live a split existence. When they speak, they squeak like little girls. When they sing, they belt out the songs with the untrammeled brassiness of Ethel Merman. The supreme value in the musical is money. And so the heroine, Lorelei Lee (Rosemary Doyle), wigglingly pursues a number of rich men on a steamer voyage between New York City and France before finally being united with her true (and, of course, wealthy) love, Gus Edmond Jr. (Paul McQuillan) . What makes it all tolerable is Jule Styne’s music and Leo Robin’s lyrics, especially Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Marilyn Monroe once sighed and simpered her way through it, but Doyle hammers out the tune full-throttle and helps relieve the musical’s essential silliness by giving Lorelei a resilient, cynical sense of humor.
Between the frivolity of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the harrowing vision of Saint Joan lies a sensibility gap of several million light years—a much broader span than the festival usually attempts. But the 1993 Shaw company makes the leap impressively, with a heady combination of craft and inspiration.
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