The second set of openings at the Shaw Festival began with an attempt at freshness and currency. Bernard Shaw’s On the Rocks was given a makeover by Canadian playwright Michael Healey. As he admits in his notes, dickering with established masterworks is dangerous work, “So I understand the risks involved here.”
In his considerable preface to this “Play Political” (about half the length of the two acts which follow), Shaw sets the stage like never before. One of the highlights comes when he imagines/adapts a dialogue between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. Not surprisingly, the discourse is razor sharp: “That is why your lawyers can plead as well for one side as another, and can therefore plead without dishonour for the side that pays them,” explains the son of God to his politically driven earthly ruler. For the musical version of this Roman inquisition, a visit to Jesus Christ Superstar now playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is highly recommended.
Then, just before the curtain rises in the text, Shaw shares some illuminating thoughts about “The Sacredness of Criticism.” The former music reviewer doesn’t mince words: “… a civilization cannot progress without criticism, and must therefore, to save itself from stagnation and putrefaction, declare impunity for criticism.”
Having covered all manner of themes (e.g., doing nothing trumps bold acts during coalition governments) and ideas (the role of authoritarian sanctioned cruelty to keep the peace), readers and theatregoers are ready to be ushered into the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street and meet the exceedingly overworked Prime Minister, Sir Arthur Chavender (Peter Krantz) and Hilda (Mary Haney) his long suffering private secretary. Over the next hour, the state of the PM’s mental health will be examined from many points of view.
But in Healey’s hands that was not to be.
Instead, and with director Joseph Ziegler’s concurrence, this adaptation turns the drama on its head by starting the action with Act II. (Late arriving aficionados might well believe they got the curtain time decidedly wrong.)
Accordingly, the PM’s metamorphosis from flowery, content-lite orator to champion of all things socialist has already been accomplished, and in record time. In Shaw’s mind, the retreat from society into an intellectual spa (as the mysterious proprietor—Claire Jullien—states uncategorically, “I guarantee that in a fortnight you will begin to think before you talk”) culminates several months later. The rejuvenated Liberal gives the speech of his career that becomes an overnight sensation. No one can believe their ears—especially front bench colleagues (notably Steven Sutcliffe as Sir Dexter Rightside—senior member from the Conservative side of the political alliance), military brass (Norman Browning looking resplendent as Admiral Hotspot), police (none better than Thom Marriott to salivate over the prospect of increasing Scotland Yard’s finest by 5,000), aristocracy (David Schurmann has the honours playing the Duke of Domesday) business tycoons (most ably represented thanks to Cherissa Richards’ take on Dame Adhira Pandranath) and even a deputation from the Isle of Cats (the most impressive of which is the sage Mr. Hipney—tellingly rendered by Guy Bannerman).
Seeing the end result before understanding what needed to be “fixed” in the first place becomes the tragic flaw of this beautifully designed (Christina Poddubiuk) and lit (Louise Guinand—might The Lady really be a ghost?) production.
Imagine a version of My Fair Lady (currently running until October) that begins at the Hungarian embassy ball then the ensuing love story before setting up shop in cockney Covent Garden after intermission. When the first act of On the Rocks finally begins, the harried PM seems more a fool than a man who believes his own press releases and can’t remember to whom he has given jewellery (Hilda’s necklace misses an important bit of provenance).
That concern aside, Healey’s other changes are hit and miss. Whether through the repertory company’s complement or direct design, giving the original’s Sir Jafna Pandranath a sex change works on nearly every level. Having a woman at the helm of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise successfully removes the old boy quality of Britain’s (then, not now) movers and shakers. Unfortunately, during the explosive “nigger” scene, the dreaded b-word is actually spoken rather than alluded to. This did produce the, apparently, desired two-fisted shock from the crowd, but weakened the overall, outwardly civilized tone by its utterance.
On the family front (another major theme), the PM gets marvellous support from his well-meaning wife (Catherine McGregor), endures their bickering offspring (Maggie Blake, Ben Sanders) and eventually is rewarded with an empty nest after the younger members of the deputation (Marla McLean, Martin Happer) discover that sexual feelings have no class barriers. As good as their interactions were, the gratuitous inclusion of “Dad” and “Mom” by the son-in-law-elect rang up a couple more wrong notes, given all that was heard (or read) before.
Taking a different view of established art can be as refreshing as savouring a favourite meal with some tweaking of the ingredients. But when the courses are consumed out of order, the delectable effect is lost. JWR