How do I love thee? Let me find a way.
- (with apologies to Elizabeth Browning)
No better way to complete this year’s Shaw Festival offerings than attending—arguably—the namesake’s best play ever. With only 17 performances, the six-hour masterpiece (including an hour for lunch) will be witnessed by fewer patrons than the usual season-long runs, but those in the festival theatre will go away mightily satisfied for the decision to devote much of their day savouring the playwright’s wit, wisdom, insights and social pillorying.
Responding to a question (“…why I did not write a Don Juan play”) from Arthur Walkley, Bernard Shaw penned an answer for the ages, creating Man and Superman. The epic play features a female Don Juan plying her devilish trade over two suppliants (one desperately willing, the other outwardly resistant), simultaneously trying to ensnare, enrapture, bewilder and confuse.
Serving as Act III, the standalone Don Juan in Hell affords the author the opportunity to wax most philosophical on all manner of issues/subjects. Oh to have been a fly on the curtain June 11, 1915 in Edinburgh where the complete work (early performances were done without “Don Juan” since the première in 1905) came to fulsome life.
In many ways operatic in scope and substance, the clear link to Mozart’s Don Giovanni was curiously reinforced by having he-who-would-like-to-be-obeyed Roebuck Ramsden (a wily performance by David Adams) and slight poet Octavius Robinson (given a most credible take on unrequited love that rhymes from Kyle Blair) rendering their first bits of dialogue as Mozartish recitativo (replete with tinkling harpsichord—Joseph Tritt’s original score brought welcome aural contrast whenever heard). My fear that all that followed would receive the same treatment was soon—happily: point made, move on—quashed as the actors went about their usual business.
The pivotal role of John Tanner (a devilish, DJ descendant) was done up with skill and panache by Gray Powell. Evidently Shaw’s mouthpiece for social reform, the rapid-fire of the voluminous lines was largely a joy to experience even despite a few stumbles along the journey (most noticeably when in Hell as Don Juan). A slower pace might have made for a “cleaner” result, but would have missed an essential element of the revolutionist’s character above or “below” ground.
Sara Topham provided an ideally nuanced rendition of the comely surrogate lover/manipulator playing Ann Whitefield on earth and Doña Ana de Ulloa in Hades.
Sharry Flett was in her customary superb form and exquisite timing playing both Mrs. Whitefield and a rabble rouser. Violet Robinson was brought to engaging life thanks to Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster who artfully managed the complexity of living for love but most certainly not at the expense of cash. Ideally cast was Sanjay Talwar to readily “cockneyfy” the role of educated chauffeur/engineer ‘enry Sraker (his whistling interjections added much to the notion of all-knowing, all-seeing Unionist—clearly never whistling in the dark).
Martha Burns found just the right tenor and tone to play the rebel with a cause (fuelled by a stint waiting tables in London) but the “continental” accent got in the way of comprehending her thoughts from time to time. Much better was assuming the task of being the devil on the other side (here, Adams’ portrait of The Statue--in an outfit that might have been rented from Amadeus—hilariously provided the payoff to Shaw’s far-from-subtle inclusions of the word devil and its variants in all acts) which fired on/in all red cylinders.
Camellia Koos’ spartan, flexible design strategy (where looming bookcases and shelf ladders morphed into several, distinct tableaus) were entirely at one with the bookish nature of Shaw’s words (not least of which was Tanner’s tome, The Revolutionist's Handbook & Pocket Companion).
If this production was everything but Don Juan in Hell, my admiration for Kimberley Rampersad’s direction would have earned unending kudos: the pace, blocking and drive made those acts disappear in a favourable flash. But with ~two hours to spend in Hell, the vibrant air was soon sucked out of the room and the forward flow was besieged by talking-heads stagnation that sent a few patrons out to the sunlight before curtain.
Shaw’s genius has created a spectacular challenge for all concerned. How to solve the mystery of keeping Hell “lively” may be one of the theatre’s most daunting tasks! JWR