The Shaw Festival’s 2013 season began with a clear reminder that the venerable playwright’s insights into the human experience is now more relevant than ever.
Last seen in these pages in 2005 (directed by Joseph Zeigler; the only link to that production being a masterful reprisal of munitions millionaire Andrew Undershaft by Benedict Campbell), director Jackie Maxwell’s view—mostly through no fault of her own: the writing is the writing—that Shaw’s intent was to have everything stem from the title character (“…remains the central focus of the play”) can’t find its way to the foreground.
While the spotlight shines brightly on Nicole Underhay as the Salvation Army major, there isn’t quite enough range in her metamorphosis from idealistic soul saver to disillusioned pawn in the greater scheme of a money-, power-driven world.
Her dogmatic intervention with scruffy Bill Walker’s (James Pendarves) bullying assault on fellow soldier of souls, Jenny Hill (Alana Hibbert) seems to do the trick until the old adage “attitudes change, actions don’t” enters the conversion fray. The pivotal scene comes to a marvellously staged head when Walker’s pound sterling of contrition is uncategorically rejected by Major Barbara only to have her superior, Mrs. Baines (Jenny L. Wright) pry £5,000 out of the “second” trombone, purveyor of destruction, thus matching an amount already promised—but with strings attached—from an equally wealthy distiller: this donation (guilt money by any other name) from the profits of booze and bombs to fund the religion of redemption, has taken new heights in the 21st century. The sidebar of “saved” Snobby Price (Billy Lake) stealing away with Walker’s token of repentance just adds one more solid layer to the artfully built cake of irony, but finally crumbles Barbara’s over-zealous “ministry” of the damned.
It then falls to her intended—“professor”-of-Greek—Adolphus Cusins (Graeme Somerville expertly paces his role from head-over-heels suitor to beating a far different drum while negotiating his worth as his future father-in-law’s heir apparent) to come into his own and drive the play to its conclusion even as Barbara largely stands by during her man's key transition from amiable curiosity to partner in monstrosity. At this juncture, Campbell positively soars to the heights: “I was an east ender,” speaking volumes about the abject fear of poverty and making the very convincing argument that the only person he loves “is my bravest enemy.” It is hard to find a conflict currently raging around the planet whose supposed ideological root (oppression, tyranny, ethnic cleansing…) is but a mask of the never-ending struggle by the opponents (along with their backers and suppliers) to gain power and then savour the spoils—whether emerging more entrenched than ever, or overthrowing a demonstrably ruthless regime. Allied intervention, time and time again, turns on the economic worth of the warring countries (Iraq: yes; Syria: no) rather than the pain and suffering of those caught in the crossfire of bullies with guns.
By journey’s end, Barbara/Hay tries her best to regain her centrality, but—especially given the towering performances of Somerville and Campbell)—can’t manage to find the nuance and reclaim lost ground. Of course, much of that has to do with how Shaw frames the debate.
Providing varying bits of comic relief are the other men in the Undershaft household. Ben Sanders gives a fine performance of the neglected son, Stephen who—so at one with Gilbert and Sullivan’s orphans in the Pirates of Penzance, cross-reference below) even if he was a foundling (the singular qualification for inheriting the death-and-destruction enterprise), has no taste for commerce; until—that is—he visits the factory and realizes how squeaky clean it is (Shaw’s mastery of ironic metaphor deftly hits its target for all who care to hear).
Charles Lomax (foppish beau of Sarah Undershaft—rendered with ease by Ijeoma Emesowum), in the talented hands of Wade Bogert-Obrien, is the ever-engaging straight man for matriarch Lady Britomart Undershaft—as the only lead who doesn’t have an epiphany, Laurie Paton serves up a model of consistency, although the cushion gag hits bottom once or twice too often.
Playing the stereotypical long-suffering butler, Morrison, Anthony Bekenn is too-frantic-by-half in relation to his masters while Peter Krantz is appropriately dour and somewhat deluded being given the sack when his locks go prematurely grey.
Judith Bowden’s broad set is readily functional for all of the locations; best of show is the enormous library of white books that appear to be as unread as the manor’s inhabitants. The slight score—largely a covey of brass-band-metallic variations on “Onward Christian Soldiers”—effectively reinforces the theme of “What price, salvation?”
Taken as a whole (and magically at resonating with my current investigation of Stendhal’s telling depiction of an impoverished vicar-in-training insinuating his way into the pocketbook and bed of the haughty rich: Scarlet and Black), Major Barbara’s universality is assured so long as the ravages of poverty, neglect or bullying (one-to-one through nation-to-nation) continue to fuel action/reaction in the name of myriad religions, be they stoked by a better life in the next world, untold riches in this one or the “dogma” to die for of so many calamities: “Don’t get mad, get even.” JWR