Theatre

Drama that delivers

The Shaw scores with two of its opening shows

John Bemrose June 8 1998
Theatre

Drama that delivers

The Shaw scores with two of its opening shows

John Bemrose June 8 1998

Drama that delivers

Theatre

The Shaw scores with two of its opening shows

JOHN BEMROSE

Opening week at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. has been particularly idyllic this year.

By the time the initial plays hit the boards late last month, the flowers of early summer were already blooming around the town’s historic cottages and houses.

The sun has been shining, too, on the festival’s finances.

Last year, it enjoyed its most successful season ever, filling almost 79 per cent of its seats and achieving a $366,000 surplus. But the best news is that artistic director Christopher Newton,

61, has renewed his contract for another five years. In almost two decades on the job, he has turned his troupe into one of the best anywhere.

He is also one of the country’s finest stage directors.

Of the five opening-week shows (six more follow later in the summer) in the Shaw’s $14.1-million 37th season, it is Newton’s own production oí The Lady’s Not For Burning, by English playwright Christopher Fry, that burns most strongly in memory.

A 1948 verse romance set in late medieval times, the play tells the story of a disillusioned young army veteran called Thomas Mendip (Simon Bradbury) who arrives in the town of Cool Clary demanding to be hanged. It seems he has seen so much evil and destruction (his character reflects the exhaustion and despair of the post-Second World War period in which the play was written) that he thinks the human race no longer fit to live. But much to his consternation, the townsfolk are more interested in hanging Jennet Jourdemayne (Ann Baggley), a young woman they believe to be a witch. Unlike Thomas, she wants desperately to live, and so the two enter into a fascinating argument about the meaning of existence.

The genius of this 1948 classic is the way it balances whimsy with seriousness, humor with a deep evocation of mortality. When it was first performed, many critics declared

there’s a wacky family of eccentrics, the Sycamores. The mother, Penelope (Mary Haney), is a would-be playwright who constantly types away at manuscripts she never finishes, her avocation determined by the fact that, eight years earlier, a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake. Paul (Peter Millard), the dad, makes fireworks in the basement. This is a very funny play, but Munro has also given full, touching measure to its good-hearted belief that human beings are free to create a happier destiny for themselves.

Less successful is director Helena Kaut-Howson’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 drama, Major Barbara. The story concerns a young woman from a wealthy family, Barbara Undershaft (Kelli Fox), who goes to work with the Salvation Army. The crisis comes when her father, armament manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Jim Mezon), presents the organization with a large amount of money. The horrified Barbara wants the Army to refuse the gift, because it represents the profits earned from war.

One of the show’s strengths is Fox’s resonant Barbara: at one point, she gives a heartfelt cry of despair that represents the show’s deepest plumbing of the moral issues involved. But overall, this is a highly conservative Major Barbara, which—despite pockets of fine acting—never achieves a unified, visionary intensity or comes fully to grips with the play’s unsettling argument that compromise with evil is the only rational and progressive choice.

Edward Percy’s The Shop at Sly Corner (1945) is the current instalment of the festival’s popular mystery series. Directed by Joseph Ziegler, this production is chiefly notable for the performances of two Shaw veterans, the ever-blustery Michael Ball, as a London antiques dealer with links to the underworld, and the brilliant Jennifer Phipps, as his hilariously tippling housekeeper. Finally, the musical this year is A Foggy Day, with words and music by George and Ira Gershwin, and a brand-new book by Norm Foster and John Mueller. This frothy concoction about an upper-class girl who falls in love with an American songwriter is moderately amusing, but doesn’t quite match the explosiveness and gusto of the Shaw’s best efforts in this genre.

its poetic language to be Shakespearean, but it is softer and more prettily metaphoric than that, evoking a rosy world where nothing too dreadful is likely to happen. This is reflected in designer Leslie Frankish’s enchanting set with its hobbit-sized door and huge round window looking out on an Arcadian landscape. The superb cast turns the townsfolk into an amusing gallery of Chaucerian originals. Best of all are Bradbury and Baggley: when their characters fall thornily in love, they uncover the poignant, human yearning at the drama’s heart.

The next-best show is director Neil Munro’s charmingly energetic version of You Can’t Take it With You, the ever-popular 1936 comedy by the American writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. In a sense, plays like this are where television situation comedy originated, from The Honeymooners through to Seinfeld. At the centre,