Lightning, they say, never hits the same spot twice. But late last month at Ontario’s Shaw Festival, it struck six times. Six new shows premièred to launch the festival’s new season, and every one of them is excellent.
The odds against this happening, at any theatre festival, anywhere, are extraordinarily high. Just to get one show to the point where all its myriad parts add up to a unified and convincing vision is rare; to bring six to that point is miraculous. From a disturbing, moving version of George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 drama, Mrs Warren’s Profession, to Vernon Sylvaine’s joyfully performed farce Will Any Gentleman?, this year’s festival covers a lot of ground.
Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki. When the British censor first looked at the text of this 1894 play, it decided that the work was an affront to public decency, and Mrs Warren’s Profession was not performed in England until 1925. Today, in the era of bare-it-all journalism and sex on the Internet, it is hard to see what the fuss was about. There no longer seems anything the least bit prurient or shocking about Shaw’s tale of a wealthy prostitute and her feminist daughter—though that does not mean the play has lost its punch. On the contrary. Removed from its aura of scandal, it can now be appreciated for what it is: a profound study of moral corruption and emotional desolation before which love seems sadly impotent.
This essentially tragic vision is magnificently served in the Shaw’s new version. Directed by Tadeusz Bradecki—former artistic director of Poland’s Stary Theatre—this production breaks with the fast-paced, surreal style brought to Shaw’s works over the years by the festival’s artistic director, Christopher Newton. Taking an enormous gamble, Bradecki has given the play an almost Chekhovian languor. And he has sought to balance Shaw’s fervent intellectuality and verbal wit with a palpable sensuality. This is a Mrs Warren’s Profession where the actors groan with weariness when they
take their chairs, where kisses are slow and dangerous, and where the clatter and unexpected melancholy of Victorian popular songs—interjected by Bradecki into the text—creates the sense of a world coming uncertainly to its end.
Bradecki’s gamble pays off handsomely. The sensuality and sadness is just what is needed to give depth to one of the simplest and most effective dramatic situations Shaw ever created. An extremely rich prostitute (and now the manager of several highclass brothels), Mrs. Warren (Nora McLellan) returns from abroad to a Surrey cottage, where she meets her daughter, Vivie (Jan Alexandra Smith). An intelligent, highly principled Cambridge graduate, Vivie has been raised in private schools and scarcely knows her mother. More crucially, she has never learned how her mother has made her money or paid for Vivie’s fancy schools. When she finds out, she is thrown into a moral agony from which only an act of cruelty can release her.
In his preface to the play, Shaw explains that he wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession to draw attention to the evils of prostitution, then epidemic in the streets of Europe. In a long speech to her daughter, Mrs. Warren makes it clear—movingly clear in McLellan’s impassioned delivery—that for a woman, selling her favors is often the only way to escape a life
The first six shows at the Shaw Festival are all excellent of starvation wages in one of the wretched factories of the time. In other words, it is not the woman who is evil, but the society that abuses and undervalues her.
Prostitution is also a metaphor in the play for those unsavory compromises on which the comfortable life so often depends. This hidden, genteel kind of corruption is represented by Mrs. Warren’s financial backer, Sir George Crofts (Norman Browning), a man whose feet are in the gutter of prostitution, but who circulates among bishops and lords. In a remarkable demonstration of naked cynicism, he tries to buy Vivie’s hand in marriage, and so underlines the play’s implicit argument that even matrimony itself can be a form of selling oneself.
The entire cast is excellent, effortlessly spanning Mrs Warren’s broad range between comic byplay and tragic catharsis. McLellan’s hypnotic Mrs. Warren has the restless, explosive power of a prowling lioness. She roars, she simpers, she weeps, she purrs in nasal, come-hither undertones, and because as a prostitute she is used to faking emotion, it is never quite clear when she is being truthful. She is probably not quite sure herself, rhis ambiguity between the theatrical and the genuine is brilliantly mirrored by Bradecki’s decision to introduce each act with a brief, music-hall-style song-and-dance routine in which the actors announce the “heartrending tragedy” of Mrs. Warren. The director’s Eastern European sense of irony is at play here, subtly pushing home the truth of what it pretends to exaggerate and mock.
At the core of the drama, Smith’s Vivie is a superb study of a young woman whose intellectual powers and steely determination are a defence against her own emotional puerility. She has, after all, been raised by strangers, and learned long ago to keep her heart on ice. And just as she begins to warm to her mother, fresh revelations force her to take refuge behind a pitiless moral decision that leaves both her and her parent shattered. In effect, they have been raped, by society and
by each other: a result symbolized, in the last scene, by the collapse of the pleated background curtain with its pretty painted scenes of woods and fields. Yet as merciless as this production’s vision is, its truthfulness is exhilarating.
Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse, directed by Christopher Newton. Set in 1880’s Lancashire, this spirited 1915 comedy opens with shoe merchant Henry Hobson (Michael Ball) presiding over his business and his three daughters with all the bloated self-importance of the late Victorian age. “I’m British middle-class and proud of it,” he announces, while conveniently ignoring his own alcoholism and his children’s unhappiness (he lives off their unpaid labor and spends most of the time in the pub). But then the eldest daughter, the diminutive Maggie (Corrine Koslo), rebels. She tells her father’s hapless shoemaker, Willie Mossop, that she is going to marry him, and from that point on, the determined woman leads everyone quite a dance. The popular hit of last year’s festival is more moving and funny than ever.
Will Any Gentleman? by Vernon Sylvaine, directed by Christopher Newton. Farce looks easy to do but in fact is incredibly difficult, because if it isn’t funny, it’s outright cringeinducing. This 1950 romp through the life of London bank employee Henry Stirling (Neil Barclay) generates the sort of mayhem that will make a 10-year-old laugh as hard as her parents. After Stirling is mesmerized by a music-hall hypnotist, he finds himself split between his straitlaced old self and a cruising Romeo with roving hands and a voice a couple of octaves deeper. Naturally, this gets him into trouble, until—by a series of fantastic plot twists—he ends up hiding in the dressing room of a vaudeville dancer, with his foot stuck in a bucket and his pants around his ankles. This show is clearly a treat for its performers as well: they flesh out Sylvaine’s stereotypes with exuberance and skill.
The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge, directed by Jim Mezon. Another success held over from last year, Synge’s dark 1906 comedy looks at how charisma is created by unconscious collusion between its bearer and his admirers.
When the beleaguered Christy Mahon (Gordon Rand) stumbles into a remote village on the Irish coast, he is elevated to hero status by the locals once they discover he has recently murdered his father. But his overnight social and sexual success collapse when the old boy shows up and Christy has to kill him all over again. Murder at a distance has a certain mythic attractiveness, it seems, but up close it is intolerable: there is soon a movement afoot to hang the lad.
At its core, the play is about how Christy rapidly matures under the stress of events. He begins as a cringing fugitive, enjoys a false success, is yanked low again and nearly killed—and in the end, finds himself and walks free. Brimming with some of the richest English since Shakespeare, Playboy is one of the masterpieces of Irish drama— and probably the hardest work on the playbill to get exactly right. This is not a great production—there are one or two weakly filled roles and a certain overly rushed, blurred effect at times—but it is certainly a very good one, beautifully enhanced by the rough cottage interior created by designer Cameron Porteous.
The Chocolate Soldier with music by Oscar Straus, directed by David Latham. While the famous mega-shows of the day—Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Ragtime—make a virtue of their elephantiasis, the Shaw Festival has been regularly demonstrating how much musical delight can be packed into the tiny stage of its 328-seat Royal George Theatre. Based (very loosely) on Shaw’s play Arms and the Man, this fluffy tale about a young Bulgarian woman and her illicit love for an enemy soldier is played out with wit and brio. Shaw’s satirization of the romance of war is all but lost in this work, but the company gives full value to Straus’s songs, including the haunting Man of My Dreams waltz.
The Two Mrs Carrolls by Martin Vale, directed by Joseph Ziegler. Mood and local atmosphere are extremely important in staging a drawing-room murder mystery, and designer Peter Hartwell has put this show halfway home with his exquisite rendering of a house interior on France’s Côte d’Azur. The sea is not actually visible out the mullioned window, but its presence can be felt in this glowing amber room with its blue door. It is here that expatriate artist Geoffrey Carroll (David Schurmann), his wife, Sally (Laurie Paton), and their seductive neighbor, Cecily Harden (Helen Taylor), play out a murderous love triangle. Vale’s ending is weak, but there is much else to enjoy in this production, including Philippa Domville’s enchanting cameo as Clémence, the Carrolls’ grumbling Provençal maid. And in his directorial debut at the Shaw, Joseph Ziegler has done a fine job of laying down suspense and local color with a light, seductive touch. □
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