The road to salvation currently winds its way to Niagara-on-the Lake where the Shaw Festival’s production of Major Barbara resonates as deeply today as at the 1905 première.
Before a line is spoken, Allen Cole’s score—with its booming bass drum; the magnificently subliminal aural image of bombs hitting their targets—deftly reinforces the themes of right vs. wrong and power vs. servitude.
Christina Poddubiuk’s spectacular sets (particularly Act II’s Salvation Army shelter with its belching trio of industrial smokestacks lurking in the background) paint a convincing portrait of London at the turn of the century. Yet newcomers to Shaw might well be forgiven if the playwright’s notion “that society … is powerless in the face of the Anarchist who is prepared to sacrifice his own life in the battle …” appears to be as current as the daily news reports from Iraq.
Major Barbara (Diana Donnelly, prim and proper as required, but lacking the “fire-in-the-belly” delivery when pushed) is in the business of salvaging souls while her father Andrew Undershaft (Benedict Campbell, who finds the perfect mix of guile, greed and a pinch of gratitude) makes millions manufacturing weapons of ever-improving destruction. Absent for a couple of decades, his first-act homecoming produces some of the play’s finest moments.
His financially dependent, socially superior wife Lady Britomart Undershaft (veteran Mary Haney) has invited her spouse back to the family roost to sort out their children’s futures. Barbara’s fiancé, Adolphus Cusins (Ben Carlson, the pride of the younger set), is a Greek scholar who drums up his relationship by joining the Salvation Army’s band (whose wee march-off on “original” instruments is spot on, where the Act III a capella rendition of “Jerusalem” is not blessed with heavenly intonation). Sister Sarah (Charlotte Gowdy) is expected to marry the court jester Charles Lomax (Evan Buliung leans too far towards buffoonery rather than innocent naïveté) whose inheritance will be substantial if only he can survive the decade before it comes due. The baby of the family is Stephen (David Leyshon), intent on being his own man, unsure what that might be, then totally succumbs to missile-envy even as he accepts the fact that he can never be the heir to the family fortune.
The pace of the opening act’s introduction to dysfunctional-family-“R”-us is never recaptured, not in small part due to the drilling down into the mechanics of being “saved” as we meet the poor and watch how they interact with the do-gooders’ ministrations.
Shaw pulls out all of his considerable moral stops in the first half of Act II. Snobby Price (Andrew Bunker) and Rummy Kitchens (Sharry Flett—superb in her understatement) have a frank discussion about the strategy of exaggerating their sins to help raise capital and add to the moral righteousness for their saviours. Suddenly, the atmosphere darkens with the appearance of Bill Walker (Patrick Galligan, first-rate throughout). He has come to reclaim “maw girl” from the dispensers of charity, ending up assaulting Rummy and Salvation Army volunteer Jenny Hill (Jenny Wright) in the process. Astonishing here was the laughter that this theatrical bullying drew from a few members of the opening night crowd: little wonder nothing ever really changes.
The next moral dilemma explored is the “conscience money” that large corporations are prepared to offer charities in return for their own salvation. The Army, through the personage of Mrs. Baines (Patty Jamieson), holds its nose and accepts thousands from a distiller of “bad whisky,” which, like many government programs today, is matched by the munitions Czar: “Who would have thought any good could come out of war and drink,” says Baines. Major Barbara resigns her commission on the spot. Paradoxically, Bill Walker’s offer to give a pound as recompense for his sins is refused.
The final scene takes place in Undershaft’s factory. Like many industrial utopias, it is presented as squeaky clean and, aside from the occasional unplanned explosion—but no more dangerous than a mine collapse—the enterprise is soon embraced by the entire family. Its status as a perpetual cash cow provides comfort to Adolphus, who risks his chance to marry Barbara by agreeing to work there. But Barbara has had a change of heart of her own: she eschews providing “bread and treacle” to save the poor in favour of working amongst the more pampered “middle class” sinners at the factory.
Yet, like obesity, the incidence of HIV/AIDS, and recent increase in drinking-under-the-influence statistics, she, too, misses Shaw’s point: you cannot convert human nature. JWR