To lift off its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Shaw Festival drew on its collective strength and, once again (first seen in 1964), brought Heartbreak House back to glorious life.
Director, actors, designers and crew combined to magical effect that couldn’t have been possible if founder Brian Doherty hadn’t launched A Salute to Shaw in 1962. The determined playwright/lawyer’s vision immediately took hold, beginning its own incredible journey to the creation, development and constant nurturing of one of the world’s finest repertory companies.
One can only imagine what further improvements and innovations lie ahead over the next five decades.
From the opening curtain, revealing Leslie Frankish’s magnificently rendered ship-as-house set, it was clear that director Christopher Newton’s savvy understanding of Shaw’s intention would be reinforced at every turn by other like-minded artistic adventurers.
Gilding William Wordsworth’s famous quote, “[A mind forever] voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone,” just below the overhead is most certainly at one with octogenarian Captain Shotover’s (Michael Ball was delightfully irascible and a sage fount of wisdom as required) seafaring life, yet the notion that we are all alone in varying degrees adds universality to the poet’s observation.
Newton’s choice of snippets from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) made a compelling link to the legendary “sea of protest” that greeted its world première in Paris. Whether the music, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, musical camps or political agitators caused the uproar will never be fully known (no YouTube or Tweets available then). But the notion of dangerous change (for traditionalists) in music is in lockstep with the unthinkable change to global order if the “wrong side” should win the Great War. An especially deft employment of the fabled solo bassoon opening comes when apparent layabout and ladies’ man, Hector Hushabye (another bravura turn from Blair Williams) innocently whistles a few measures—immediately belieing his outer persona for those able to hear.
Previously acting in the play (as Hector Hushabye, 1964), directing it 25 years back and working as artistic director (1979-2002), Newton has seen Shaw’s semi-farcical, cautionary tale from all points of view and knows full well the capabilities of virtually everyone involved in the production.
Accordingly, there is an immediate feeling of theatrical family that is ideally put to excellent purpose as Shotover’s relations, colleagues and servant take their turn in the spotlight.
Central to the action are two sisters. Deborah Hay adds still more depth to her considerable skill set by playing Hesione Hushabye more for quiet inner turmoil than laugh inciter. She’s stayed at home, married an irresistible man (Hector) and realized that any woman alive would be a fool not to fall for her moustachioed hubby: just don’t make a fuss about it.
Her own sights are set on apparently wealthy industrialist Boss Mangan, who—as the play opens—is awaiting an answer from Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis) as to his marriage proposal. Benedict Campbell gives a masterfully nuanced performance as he pursues the “too young for you” Dunn even though he’s head-over-mergers for Hesione. The antics of his May-December pair—going into and out of a hypnotic trance has never been funnier—add much spark to the show.
Returning home after more than two decades absence (using marriage as an escape from the “crazy house”), Lady Utterword expects all those lost years to be forgiven or forgotten and that she instantly receive the love and admiration of her dad and sister. Laurie Paton brings the obliviousness of aristocratic entitlement into every speech—literally commanding the stage even as her heart is laid bare.
Somewhat akin to a Mozart opera, similarly named characters abound. Aside from Hesione and Hector Hushabye, there are the three Dunns. Ellie seems blessed with two fathers. The exotically named Mazzini is genuinely concerned with his daughter’s welfare despite the fact that Mangan ruined his business by “giving him money.” (Patrick McManus plays the role with delightfully gay abandon adding yet another colour to the heady mix.)
William Dunn (William Vickers rekindles the fun with his sudden appearance and subsequent stay-out-of-jail logic), steals Lady Utterword’s diamonds only to discover unexpected and unwanted links to the Captain and his longstanding maid, Nurse Guinness—Patricia Hamilton in fine form. Bringing him to justice (one of the funniest scenes) is Patrick Galligan as Randall Utterword—dandy brother-in-law to the long away opportunist.
Shaw and Newton weave together the relationship, mores and willfull blindness threads into a multi-textured, definitely patchy quilt that allows the closing drama above the fray (and deadly repercussions beneath) to change the tenor and tone even as the heartbreaks morph to real from imagined.
Heartbreak House is the Shaw Festival firing on all cylinders and a most worthy start to this extra special season. JWR