First up for the Shaw Festival’s 52nd season is the sixth production of its namesake’s Arms and the Man.
Shaw’s pillorying of war, the upper class and their “devoted” servants is given an engaging, fanciful treatment by director Morris Panych and his stellar production designers: Ken MacDonald’s set fits the Royal George Theatre like the proverbial glove; the third act, larger than life, mechanical clock is a marvellous metaphor for the intricate workings of human relationships and the relative timelessness of humankind’s inability to live in harmony. Charlotte Dean has faithfully and inventively realized the playwright’s desire for “half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese” while the entire proceedings are expertly illuminated thanks to Jason Hand’s first-rate candle craft.
As for the acting, Graeme Somerville leads the way in his well-nuanced portrayal of Swiss mercenary, Bluntschli. As good as that performance is, with recent events in such places as northern Nigeria, the killer-for-hire character casts a shadow over Shaw’s satire in ways he could never have imagined.
Raina Petkoff is given a glowing portrait by Kate Besworth; playing her mother, Laurie Paton is a wonderful mix of pretension, persuasion and she-who-must-be-obeyed; as Major Paul Petkoff, Norman Browning completes the family portrait with a generous helping of bluster, naiveté and resignation as required.
The battling servants come in the Mutt and Jeff, twin connivers form of Claire Julien playing Louka to a T while Peter Krantz’s Nicola (the name itself subtly used as a 21st century oral gag) was too broad by half, wanting a touch of less-is-more as time went on.
The apparent military hero (basking in the reflected glory of a battle gauged in unexpected victory) and overt (Raina) covert (Louka) suitor is brought to appropriately shallow life by Martin Happer.
With an ensemble of this calibre and artistic trust with a definite point of view, Bluntschli’s descent into this cuckoo’s nest is bound to entertain if not quite deliver a societal knockout punch. JWR