Although television and movies have taken over the realm of political satire and futuristic visions, this was not always the case. A play like Shaw's The Apple Cart of 1929 not only combines the two but is still amazingly topical and accurate in its predictions. The plot, such as it is, exists primarily as a framework for Shaw's satire. In the first half we meet two of the king's secretaries who introduce the general set-up of the play. Then follows a long interview between the King of England, Magnus, and the Labour Leader, Mr. Boanerges. The first half culminates in a stormy meeting of the King, Prime Minister and cabinet during which the Prime Minister gives the King the ultimatum to remain as king with no power whatsoever, without even a veto, or else the cabinet will resign en masse. At the centre of the play is an extended interview between the King and his ambitious mistress Orinthia, a model of everything a ruler should not be, no matter how alluring. After this, the play parallels the first half with the introduction of Jemima, the King's wife, and long interview with the American ambassador who announces that the United Stages wishes to rejoin the Commonwealth. The second half culminates in another stormy cabinet meeting during which the King answers the ultimatum with one of his own. The tone and subject matter concerning the relation of big business, democracy and monarchy are remarkably like those in Gilbert and Sullivan's most political operetta Utopia Limited (1893), except that instead of locating the action on a far-removed place like a South Sea island, Shaw has placed it in a removed timeforty years in the future. Director Richard Greenblatt duly updates the action for the contemporary audience to the year 2040.
As a comedy of ideas, this play is not for everyone. It finds an appropriate home at the Court House Theatre of the Shaw Festival, where audiences have learned over the years to appreciate unusual works. Before the play even begins, Greenblatt lets us know what we're in for by having pertinent excerpts from Shaw's preface to this play and "Geneva" projected on the left and right walls of the theatre. Even designer Kelly Wolf's backdrop and the furniture of the set before us have words of important concepts painted or embroidered on them.
Suitably prepared, we are ready to plunge into Shaw's thoroughgoing satire of democracy. As Shaw makes clear from every possible angle, although everyone may hold to the notion that democracy is good and right, the true power even self-proclaimed democracies is not arrived at or wielded democratically. In Mr. Boanerges we see a labour union boss who can command the unions to do as he says. In Balbus, the Home Secretary, we see a man whose brother runs Breakages, Limited, the most powerful company in Britain, that ensures all products conform to what we would now call planned obsolesce and has all the main politicos in its pocket. In Ms. Vanhatten, we see a representative of the world's greatest power who explains as nicely as she can how the US would like to "merge" with the Commonwealth, i.e. take it over completely. "How long until the capital moves from London to Washington," the King wonders aloud. This, along with discussions of manufacturing in Third World countries to save labour costs at home, of what we would now call the globalization of trade and culture and of the media becoming more entertainment than information makes one wonder again and again how, if Shaw saw this happening in 1929, we can pretend these are new problems.
While the ideas are consistently intriguing, the characters Shaw has written are, with a few exceptions, primarily mouthpieces for various points of view. The Shaw festival company, after 37 years of dealing with this frequent quirk in their titular playwright, are able to bring off this kind of play more successfully than any other company in the world. It's often been said that it is the acting itself that makes characters of these mouthpiece figures, and the cast here is uniformly strong.
The central figure of the play is King Magnus himself, a role that has attracted the likes of Cedric Hardwicke, Noel Coward and John Neville. Paxton Whitehead played it twice at the Shaw (1966 and 1976); David Schurmann plays it now in the play's first revival since Whitehead. Suitably for a satire on democracy, it is the King who alone sees through all the bluffs and posturing around him. Schurmann's tone is ideal for a character who shifts constantly between irony and sincerity, self-possession and worry. He is excellent at showing an outward security simultaneous with an inner knowledge the world he "rules" is already slipping from his control.
The most powerful character as a character is the one who has no political power at all: Orinthia, the King's mistress. Once-Canadian, now Australian actress Pamela Rabe is absolutely outstanding in this role. She has only one scene in the play but it is so highly charged that it alone is worth the price of admission. Orinthia believes that she, not Jemima, should be Queen since she has a strength of personality beyond anyone in England. Indeed, she claims that she is a goddess worthy to be adoredand Rabe is so commanding and persuasive we believe her! Yet, her utter disdain of politics and of those she would rule mean, as the King well knows, that she is exactly the one who should not rule. It's an amazing performance. The sexual tension between Orinthia and Magnus is something one hardly ever sees in Shaw and Rabe and Schurmann play this up to the fullest. One can only reflect how in Rabe Australia's gain has been Canada's great loss.
The next largest roles are all excellently cast and played: Michael Ball as the emphatic but easily swayed labour leader Boanerges, Wendy Thatcher as the dowdy but sensible Queen Jemima, Peter Millard in a fine comic turn as the apoplectic Prime Minister and Lynne Cormack, hilarious in the role of Ms. Vanhattan ("Mr." In the original), the aggressively friendly (though, in fact, merely aggressive) American ambassador. The cast is filled out with Roger Rowland and Kevin Bundy as the King's two secretaries, Fiona Byrne as the King's daughter and Anthony Bekenn, George Dawson, Sandy Webster, Craig Gardner, Corinne Koslo and Camille James (the last two also female in the original) as the various cabinet members. All, no matter how small the part, instantly pin down their character's temperament, Koslo, having the largest of these, bringing an emotional depth to her part.
This kind of play is a designer's dream. In Kelly Wolf's conception, high-collared frock coats with waistcoats of the late 18th century have come back in style for both men and women, except now in vivid colours and with asymmetric lapels. The trendier the character, the more bizarrely moussed the hairstyle from Bundy's simple swoop to Bekenn's and Rabe's multiple swirls and tints, the English style contrasting with the American's blonde cheerleader do.
With short hair and a simple white-and-gold suit, Schurmann as Magnus stands out from all the rest, as he does in the action. While the costumes support the theme of a period of revolution, I found it hard to believe that Ball's Slavic peasant outfit would make a come-back even for a labour leader. I didn't mind the addition of various forms of ultra-miniaturized PCs though it may have confused some people. All is well-lit by Bonnie Beecher and accompanied by John Millard's lovely arrangements of poems by Burns and Blake.
Richard Greenblatt, in his first stint at the Shaw, knows how to keep a certain amount of stylization as befits a satire without going so far as to make all the characters into caricatures. He gives enough action and energy to the cabinet meetings to keep them from feeling static, but excels in the Magnus-Orinthia scene where there is more room, physically and emotionally, to create tension.
Anyone interested in politics, predictive fiction or the byways of Shaw's output should not hesitate to see what Shaw aptly subtitled "A Political Extravaganza".
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
This year the Shaw Festival has revived its highly successful production of Noel Coward's 1925 play Easy Virtue. Last year the Shaw did what they are so good at--taking a lesser-known work, pulling out all the stops on a production to show its full merits and, in this case, proving that the work has been unjustly neglected. This year they have topped themselves by improving an already excellent production. I now cannot imagine a better production of this play anywhere in the world.
The play concerns the upper middle-class Whittaker family whose ordinary habits and whose conventional views are upset when Colonel Whittaker's only son John brings home his new wife Larita, whom he has married on the Continent and about whom the family know nothing except what their own prejudice makes them imagine. As a result, when Larita does appear at the family's country home, the Whittaker women continue to see only the loose woman they imagine a continental divorcée to be and make no attempt to her as she actually is. Only the Colonel, who has strayed from the straight and narrow in the past, John's ex-fiancée Sarah and her friend Charles, show the slightest understanding for Larita's plight in having to live in circumstances so unlike what she is used to and in having to deal with the increasing lack of interest from her husband. Events reach a climax when a news clipping of an past scandal is found and the hostility of the Whittaker women for Larita flares into the open.
Superficially, the target of Coward's satire is narrow-mindedness of the English middle class, completely convinced that its tidy view of the world is the only valid one. Most of the humour of the play derives from Coward's exposure via Larita of the Whittakers' limitations and hypocrisy. On a more general level, however, the play is about how everyone is more willing to accept illusion rather than reality to get through life. This helps explain how Larita and John Whittaker came to fall in love at all. When the disillusionment comes, it is not comic at all. Those who think of Coward as writing only frothy comedies will be surprised at how serious and even tragic the undertone is to this play.
There have been two significant changes in the cast from last year--in both cases for the better. Ben Carlson plays John Whittaker, the role played by Kevin Bundy last year. Although John is supposed to be young and weak, Carlson has the stage presence necessary to convince us why Larita would ever be attracted to him. This year Patrick R. Brown plays Charles Burleigh, the role played by Todd Waite last year. Waite made Charles a generally good-hearted kind of fellow, but Brown, in a very different interpretation, immediately establishes his sympathy with Larita to the point where his character becomes a kind of stand-in for Coward himself, foreseeing and commenting on the course of the action. What was merely a minor character has now become a focus for our understanding.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, giving performances
even more richly nuanced than last year. Patricia Hamilton
plays Mrs. Whittaker as barely able to conceal the loathing she
feels for a person who challenges her black-and-white assumptions
about the world. Kelli Fox shows Marion Whittaker as taking
after her mother, having repressed
thwarted love into a kind of religious zeal for the "truth," which untimately she cannot face. Fiona Byrne as the younger sister Hilda shows how easily youthful infatuation can flip into hatred. David Schurmann as Colonel Whittaker has retreated from his family and all but given up trying to fight their misplaced moral indignation only to be to drawn out of isolation by his sympathy for Larita. Glynnis Ranney masters the difficult role of John's ex-fiancée who knows his faults, still loves him, but still identifies with the woman he is wronging. Central to the whole play, of course, is the character of Larita. In this role Goldie Semple gives one of her best ever performances. She makes Larita an extraordinarily complex character whose boredom in the Whittaker home she knows is only a sign of a deeper dissatisfaction with love and perhaps with life. She has a wit and
perception of irony that she turns on others as well as herself and has no patience with people who cannot recognize the complexity of living. She is also has the courage to commit a kind of social suicide when she knows the time has come for it.
The play is acted out on William Schmuck's gorgeously detailed set and in his witty costumes, ranging from the frumpy outfits of Marion to the sophisticated asymmetry of Larita's. All is beautifully lit by Alan Brodie, especially in the rainstorm that begins the play and in the party scene that ends it.
Christopher Newton's masterful direction is even more
finely detailed than last year, drawing as much from what the
characters don't say as from what they do. He seems to have rethought
the play to bring out the darker tone beneath the surface of laughter.
Last year it seemed Larita was trying to make an effort to fit
in only to see the futility of it. This time it is clear from
her first entrance that she knows her marriage to John is a mistake
and that, in entering the Whittaker home, she has
stepped into a trap. Newton makes the ending which leaves the revellers oblivious to personal tragedy and the Whittakers unchanged the most powerful condemnation of their world.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
If anyone had any doubt that
Christopher Newton is one of the best directors working
in Canada, one would have to look no further than Easy Virtue
and The Doctor's Dilemma now playing at the Shaw
Festival. Both are satiric comedies that mask a tragedy but
Newton, though taking radically different approaches to each play,
has made each a resounding success.
Where Easy Virtue was lush and naturalistic, The Doctor's Dilemma is stark and expressionistic. That Newton can triumph in both modes is also a testament to the Shaw Festival company--justly regarded as the finest acting troupe in North America.
The set for all five acts of Shaw's 1906 play is a functional grey box with two square central pillars designed by Sue LePage. The walls and pillars end about a fourth of the way before they reach the top of the proscenium and continue as black reinforcement rods, some straight, some branching out like trees or veins. Unlike the realistic set for Easy Virtue or the elaborate revolving set used for this play in 1991, this is a set we're meant to see as a set. Only Kevin Lamotte's highly inventive lighting and a minimum of furniture moved on suggests the four different locations of the action. In a brilliant touch, the furniture is moved on and off by the actors wearing half-masks of skulls as worn in Latin America for the celebrations of the Day of the Dead. They move in and out in curious synchronized dance movements choreographed by Jane Johanson at the start of the play and in the entre'actes. The association with the Day of the Dead immediately sets the macabre-comic tone of this comedy with death at its centre and establishes the stylized acting Newton will assign to the Shaw's satiric portraits of members of the medical profession.
Shaw deliberately introduces us to five caricatures of doctors who come to congratulate Sir Colenso Ridgeon on his recent knighthood, before setting the plot in motion with the arrival of Jennifer Dubedat, the only layperson in the first act other than the maid. We meet the doctors in increasing order of eccentricity. Ridgeon (Blair Williams), the doctor of the title, seems the most "normal" except for allowing himself to be babied by his maid (Jennifer Phipps), not seeing that the "pains" he feels may be due to his bachelorhood and not wishing to see any of the non-doctors in his waiting room. In the first to enter, Leo Schutzmacher (Neil Barclay) we see a doctor obviously proud of the wealth and position his profession has brought. In the second, Sir Patrick Cullen (Bernard Behrens) we see the retired doctor who knows that all the fashionable "new" treatments are really not new at all since he's lived long enough to see things come full circle. He remains seated and facing the audience most of his time on stage. Next in, the surgeon Cutler Walpole (Lorne Kennedy in his first appearance at the Shaw) strikes various poses as he propounds ad nauseam that all illness is a form of blood poisoning which can be cured only by surgery, specifically the excision of the "nuciform sac" (which none his colleagues believe even exists). Then we have Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Jim Mezon in a rare comic turn), who is all hyperactivity, fiddling with and usually wrecking whatever comes to hand, restlessly wandering over the set, as he repeatedly claims that injections are the cure-all because they "stimulate the phagocytes". In the last three cases it is quite clear how Newton has related a restricted range of movement to the philosophy of the character. Last to appear, always in a cowed position and looking more like a tramp than a G.P., is Dr. Blenkinsop (Guy Bannerman) who is close to poverty because is clientele are themselves close to poverty. Unlike the others, he appears as a caricature not because of his monomania but because of society's indifference to the poor.
None of the five doctors change in any way during the course
of the play so that, as with a proto-expressionist like Wedekind,
a personal drama is played out against the backdrop of an unaltering
satirical picture of society reinforced by LePage's set, Johanson's
choreography and Newton's direction. The focus of our interest
are the two characters who do change--Ridgeon and Jennifer Dubedat
(Severn Thompson), the wife of a brilliant young artist
dying of tuberculosis. Dr. Ridgeon's dilemma is
twofold: he has space in his experimental clinic for only one more patient, but who should he save--the dying artist or his friend, Dr. Blenkinsop, who also has tuberculosis? Which is more valuable to society? And who is fallible man to play God in making such a choice? Ridgeon is fallible since his second dilemma is whether to act objectively or subjectively since he has fallen in love with Mrs. Dubedat.
In 1991 Michael Ball played Ridgeon. By casting Blair Williams, who physically we can more easily imagine as a suitable match for the artist's wife, Newton cleverly draws the audience in to the trap of rooting for him so that when Ridgeon makes his fateful decision, we are fully implicated as well. Credit must, of course, also go to Williams, who fully succeeds in the difficult task of making Ridgeon's very weakness seem sympathetic. Credit, too, is due to Severn Thompson, who is so expert at engaging us with the idealistic young women she plays, even, as in this case, we wonder whether her idealistic view of her husband is misplaced. Newton also has made the drama more complex by emphasizing the highly dubious nature of the artist, Louis Dubedat. In 1991 Stephen Sutcliffe elicited our sympathy for the dying painter, making us overlook, as does his wife, his many flaws. This time Mike Shara, in his best-ever performance, plays Dubedat as proudly amoral, disobeying his wife at a moment's notice, sponging money from people at every turn and even willing to turn his own death into a publicity stunt. In this way Newton makes Dubedat's monomania in holding art above all else directly parallel the various obsessions of the doctors. Newton's approach thus brings out the full moral complexities of the drama and our own engagement with it. In so doing he demonstrates more clearly than ever that this is one of Shaw's greatest plays.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker of 1954 marks a return to farce on the Festival Theatre stage after an absence of eight years. Christopher Newton is one of the few directors who respects farce as the dramatic genre that lives only on the stage not on the page, and as a result, as he has frequently shown in the past, he is one of the few directors who knows how to direct it without going overboard as is too often the case. The Matchmaker, however, is not a farce in the style of Ben Travers or Ray Cooney. It is, after all, by the same author as Our Town and deliberately exposes the theatrical illusion, as does that play. The play begins with a character directly addressing the audience to set the time and place of the action and thereafter the action is periodically interrupted by such addresses as the various characters stand front and centre to explain their motivations or views on life. The farce also has a politic undercurrent in that Dolly Levi's philosophy is that money should be spread around evenly for everyone whereas the man she connives to marry, Vandergelder, is a tight-fisted miser, a tyrant to his daughter and employees. The Matchmaker thus has resonances most farces do not have and Newton uncharacteristically errs in having the majority of the actors adopt too broad a style.
The plot derives from Johan Nestroy's 1842 comedy Einen Jux will er sich machen which Wilder has transplanted from Vienna to New York in the 1880s. (In 1981 Tom Stoppard adapted the same play as On the Razzle.) Horace Vandergelder, a rich merchant, has arranged for his daughter, Ermengarde, to marry into wealth despite the fact that she loves a poor artist. Dolly Levi, the matchmaker, has her own plans of marrying into wealth by marrying Vandergelder and secretly aiding Ermengarde to marry the one she loves. Meanwhile, two of Vandergelder's workers, Cornelius and Barnaby, fed up with his strict ways and seeing only a joyless life ahead, decide to close the shop in his absence and go to New York to have the "adventures" they've always dreamt of. After a series of disguises and near encounters between Vandergelder and his errant employees, everyone turns up at the home of Ermengarde's aunt where all the confusion is sorted out ending in four couples plighting their troth. More than that, Dolly's success in marrying Vandergelder means a better life for everyone. The play ends with each character summing up for the audience in a word--each one different--what the meaning of the play is.
The generally warm mood of the piece, its recognition of human foibles and the reconciliation at the end outweigh the various element of farce and suggest that a subtler approach to acting would be more appropriate. As Horace Vandergelder, Michael Ball turns in one of the gruff old man characters at which he is so expert. The only problem is that this older man is so unlikable it is difficult to understand his off-stage reconciliation with Ermengarde at the end. As Ermengarde, Fiona Byrne is given little to do but hop about and squeal. Craig Erickson, as her beloved artist boyfriend, makes a few heroic poses but mostly is seen struggling with Ermengarde's luggage rather too often to remain funny. Kevin Bundy as Cornelius could make more of his role if he had been encouraged to. We really should feel that he thinks this may be his last stab at excitement in life. Dylan Trowbridge as Barnaby takes a holiday from the psychologically complex characters he's played recently, but Newton could have allowed his character to be a bit more than a ninny. The same could be said for Lisa Norton as a worker in the hat shop where the two boys take refuge. Patricia Hamilton as Ermengarde's Aunt Flora is quite funny but could have toned down her performance a notch or two.
The two main exceptions to the general trend of overemphasis are Goldie Semple as the matchmaker, Dolly Levi, and Corinne Koslo as Irene Molloy, the milliner who also longs for excitement. Wilder makes Dolly the real centre of the play. She knows what is wrong with the world she is in, having had more real experience in that anyone around her, and will do everything she can to make things right. The scene in which she manages to get Horace to propose to her in spite of himself is a true delight. What Koslo does with Irene is exactly what I wish Ball had done with Vandergelder and Bundy with Cornelius--she infuses her character with a palpable determination and passion, with the result that we care what happens to her. George Dawson as Vandergelder's new valet attempting to overcome his checkered past also makes the most of his part. His address to the audience in the restaurant scene in Act 3 brings down the house.
William Schmuck's set is the perfect embodiment of the conscious artifice built into the play. Some props are three-dimensional, some only painted onto the two rotating walls of the set. The transformation of Vandergelder's store in Act 1 to the milliner's shop in Act 2 is a coup de théâtre as skyscrapers rise from privet hedges, the two walls revolve and a train chugging toward us suddenly rotates to become a wardrobe in the shop that has just formed. He has supplied everyone, especially Ms. Semple, with exceedingly attractive costumes. All is enhanced by Kevin Lamotte's sensitive lighting, especially in signaling when characters are inside the action of the play and when they step outside it.
While Newton must have wanted to distinguish the style of this
comedy from the Easy Virtue he directed earlier in the
season, The Matchmaker could have been even more winning
than it already is if he had encouraged more detailed performances
from the whole cast. Newton has made the show a "romp"
and pleasant diversion when a subtler approach would have left
a warmer, more lasting impression.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
The Shaw Festival was very surprised to find that its production of Six Characters in Search of an Author had sold out its entire run, including previews, two months before it even opened. One of the various explanations for this remarkable fact is that Pirandello's masterpiece, though one of the central works of 20th-century drama, is seldom performed in North America. Besides this, Christopher Newton has cultivated an audience at the Court House Theatre for precisely those "difficult" or unusual plays that are part of the Shaw Festival mandate. When we add in the fame the Shaw troupe has garnered for its ensemble acting and the knack Polish director, Tadeusz Bradecki, has shown in past seasons for bringing complex plays to life in brilliant productions, we have gone some way to understand how this happened.
Six Characters is famous as the most thorough dramatic critique of naturalism on stage and of realism in general. The paradoxical relation of illusion and reality, game playing, the nature of personality, the ultimate unknowability of the selfthese are among the numerous topics in the play that have become central tenets of modern drama. Like Shaw's works, this is a play of ideas with art, rather than politics or society, as the subject of debate Pirandello portrays the confrontation between fiction and reality in the guise of a confrontation between a modern theatre company in the midst of rehearsals with six characters, brought to life by an author's imagination but who have been left in an existential limbo when he abandoned the work they were part of. They seek from the Director to have their tragic story finally embodied and completed so they find rest, but the process of trying to show their story on stage only leads them to see how unbridgeable their two realities are. For the Characters, theirs is the sole and unchanging reality. For the Actors, any attempt to portray the story can only be an interpretation consistent with what the stage allows. The issues Pirandello raised in 1921 are still alive, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable.
In the wrong hands, Six Characters can seem like a tedious philosophical debate. Pirandello makes it very difficult for us to become involved in the suffering and anger of the Characters since their story is constantly being interrupted and analyzed. Bradecki has overcome these difficulties in a wide variety of ways. First, he and designer Peter Hartwell have had the brilliant idea of setting the action here and now and making it specific to the Shaw Festival. In an improvised prelude, actors in their typical ragtag outfits mention bits of the latest Canadian news during the general pre-rehearsal hubbub. The six Characters, however, when they make their dramatic appearance, are clad in the black Edwardian costumes one so often sees in Shaw productions. Bradecki and Hartwell have added a further metatheatrical layer to the play by having the central confrontation also represent the confrontation of the contemporary Shaw troupe with its typical period material. Much of the fun comes from seeing the Shaw actors imitating their own rehearsal process. Next, Bradecki has given each of the actors, no matter how small the part, a very specific personality, thus adding a richness and sense of detail to combat the abstractness of the argument. He also has made the Characters confront all forms of modern theatre. Therefore, he interpolates Imali Perera's beautiful singing, Alistair James Harlond's tap-dancing, recorded excerpts from opera and a big production number including the Stepdaughter of a song from the 1916 musical, Chu Chin Chow. He finds a humour in the play few have emphasized, making the central encounter also one between the comedy of the Actors and the tragedy of the Characters. Bradecki is also fortunate to be using a brand new translation by Domenico Pietropaolo that does away with the archaisms of older versions.
Despite Pirandello's and Bradecki's frequent use of humour to undercut the Characters' story, he allows the two main causes for their suffering full dramatic impact. The Father's unwitting seduction of his own Stepdaughter is truly shocking and the daughter Rosetta's drowning and Boy's suicide truly frightening. In these we see the hell in which the Characters exist and also difficulty of the Actors in fully comprehending it.
The six Characters are not all equally detailed as is the case in any fiction. Most fully realized is the Stepdaughter played by Kelli Fox, who fully encompasses the enormous range this role demands, from humour to humiliation, from rage to tenderness. Norman Browning, who is such a natural in comedy, might not be thought the ideal actor to portray the guilt-obsessed Father, but through rigorous control of voice and diction, he brings it off and brings clarity to the Father's many quotable speeches about the relation of art and reality. Sharry Flett's voice and bearing bring a dignity of the role of the Mother who often can seem merely pathetic. Joel Hechter has the demeanor to play the disdainful Son, but not quite the needed vocal control. The other two Characters, the Boy and the Rosetta, have no lines. There is, of course, the seventh Character, who makes a sudden spectacular appearance in Act 2. An almost unrecognizable Mary Haney makes a strong impression in this small role as Madame Pace, the depraved brothel-keeper.
Among the theatre company, Barry MacGregor is perfectly cast as the Director. He makes sense of the Director's frequent modulation between interest and exasperation regarding the Characters and bullying and cajoling his Actors. Brigitte Robinson is very funny as the temperamental Leading Lady, while Ben Carlson keeps his Leading Man out of the realm of caricature. The rest of the cast, often relegated to the role of a kind of audience on stage, deserves praise for never letting their focus falter.
Part of the conceit of the play is that there is no set as such--the stage, as it is, is the set. We can even see the backs of sets for other Court House plays at the back of the stage. The only concession is that the Director's table has necessarily been moved from the middle of the auditorium onto the stage. Robert Thomson has the chance to exercise his wit in distinguishing lighting as requested by the Director MacGregor versus lighting as requested by the director Bradecki. This is the most imaginative production of this difficult play I have seen, and I'm sure it will be a very long time before it is equaled much less surpassed.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
Still Life, part of a cycle of ten one-act plays Noel Coward presented in 1936 under the title Tonight at 8:30, is better known to the general public as the basis of David Lean's classic 1946 film Brief Encounter. The Shaw Festival production not only gives us a rare chance to see the play on stage but it also turns out to be one of the finest shows of the season. The lunchtime show comes in at just under an hour but is so richly detailed it gives one the feeling of having seen a full-length play.
The story concerns an affair between a married man and woman as shown through five meetings they have in the refreshment room of the Milford Junction train station from their first chance encounter to the realization of their love, to a spat and agreement they must part for the sake of their spouses, to their final goodbye. It is the story of two decent people caught up in a grand passion who know both the joy it gives them and the pain it will ultimately cost. This affair is contrasted with two other affairs going on among the staff at the station. The flirting between the refreshment room manager and a ticket collector as it moves into a steady relationship is the comic parallel to the main couple as the manager periodically worries whether the ticket collector considers her a decent woman. So, too, to a lesser degree is the relationship between a male refreshment vendor and a waitress whose cheerful affair is overshadowed by the death of the girl's grandmother. The three stories taken together along with the interruptions brought about by additional visitors to the station provide a portrait of the interweaving of joy and sorrow in human life that is almost like a miniature version of Coward's epic Cavalcade.
This is the kind of play the Shaw company does best and it is superbly cast, designed and directed. Simon Bradbury and Jan Alexandra Smith as the central couple, Dr. Alec Harvey and Laura Jesson, are excellent. Bradbury assumes his most serious role to date with such mastery that it is hard to believe he was once one of the chief farceurs at the Shaw. Unlike so many who attempt the change from comedy to tragedy, Bradbury successfully channels the energy he used to put into farce into the conflicting emotions of his character. Jan Alexandra Smith makes a welcome return to the Shaw. The role requires her constantly to communicate two opposite feelings--one outward, one inward--expressing confidence while feeling doubt, attempting small talk while her life is collapsing around her. Hers is an extraordinary performance in every way.
Nora McLellan as Myrtle Bagot and Neil Barclay as Albert Godby, the main comic couple, are also excellent--Barclay for his irrepressible jolliness and McLellan for her airs of personal and professional propriety in running a fine dining establishment despite all evidence to the contrary. They show the nuanced gradations of how a friendly banter can change into something of more substance. Blair Williams as the vendor and Jenny L. Wright are very fine as the second comic couple--he, a common happy-go-lucky fellow in complete contrast to his role as the title character in The Doctor's Dilemma, she as an innocently cheerful girl who becomes increasingly preoccupied (as we later discover) with her grandmother's ill health.
The minor roles are all well taken--Susie Burnett as a series of customers both male and female, Bruce Davies and Douglas E. Hughes as two rowdy soldiers giving Mrs. Bagot a hard time and Jane Perry as another station worker. Special mention must be given to Laurie Paton as Dolly Messiter, a friend of Laura Jesson, who arrives just when she and Alec are saying their final goodbyes. The scene is exquisitely managed as Paton's character carelessly rambles on oblivious to the tragedy unfolding in her midst.
The play is simply but effectively dressed and set by designer
Barbara Gordon, evoking both period detail and the passage
of time. Jeff Logue has provided the lighting so effective
in setting the shifting moods of the play and imaginative in the
use of projections to help trace the passing of the months from
meeting to meeting. Dennis Garnhum's direction draws such
natural and detailed performances from the cast that we feel as
if we, too, happen to be there by chance observing the various
romances unfold. He has exactly the right feel for the mixture
of comic and tragic in the play, so important to Coward's view
of the world. He gives the play more weight and power than one
finds in many a full-length work. In fact, many people may not
wish to see a matinee immediate following this lunchtime show
in order to savour more fully the bittersweetness of the story.
Anyone contemplating a visit to the Niagara-on-the-Lake in the
next few weeks should make sure not to miss this production.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
In place of the usual mystery at the Royal George Theatre this season at the Shaw Festival is J.B. Priestley's 1937 play Time and the Conways. People who go expecting something à la Agatha Christie will get much more of a mystery than they bargained for. Here the question is not a simple "Whodunnit?" but rather "What is the nature of time and man's place in it?" If this seems rather much to ask of the usual Christie crowd, Priestley makes his metaphysical questions as easy to take as possible by cloaking them in the guise of the story of typical middle-class family between the wars.
Priestley's usual system is to take a conventional genre and to tweak it in some way so that it can only be understood in an unconventional way. At the end of his An Inspector Calls (1945), Priestley shifts our focus from the family under investigation to the Inspector himself whose nature and motivation are the real mystery of the play. In Conways Priestley tells a typical tale of a family in decline but uses an unusual shift in presenting the events that changes our perspective on them.
Act 1 takes place at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway in 1919. Act 3 takes place just a few minutes after the end of the action in Act 1. Act 2, however, takes place in 1938, exactly 19 years after the events in Acts 1 and 3. According to Christopher Innes's programme note, which prefers to see the play primarily as a document of social history, Act 2 is merely a "flash forward" in time so that we can better see the seeds of the collapse of the Conway family in Act 3. But that is not a sufficient explanation of what happens.
As in a ghost story, a real frisson goes through the audience in Act 3 when Kay begins to mention to her brother Alan events of Act 2 that have not yet happened. Social history will not help explain the eeriness that settles in, but Priestley's view of the nature of time does. In Act 2, Alan explains that all moments in time are simultaneous, "Now, at this moment, or any moment, we're only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time . . . ." As directed by Neil Munro, this mystery becomes even deeper. Act 1 ends with Kay alone gazing out the window at a strange play of lights. Act 2 ends in the same way. If Act 2 is merely a "flash forward" how do Kay and Alan know of those events 19 years earlier? Is Act 2 merely Kay's reverie of what might happen in 1938? Or is Act 2 the base time, with Kay's party in Acts 1 and 3 as the flashbacks?
As I said, what starts out, seemingly, as a straightforward, naturalistic glimpse into a family's life becomes by the end anything but straightforward. The weird disorientation that Priestley's play causes, and that Munro's staging increases, will stay with you longer than the simple surprise of any conventional mystery.
Munro's efforts are aided by one of the cleverest set designs I've seen in a long time. Brian Perchaluk presents us in Acts 1 and 3 with the genteel but over-decorated parlour that perfectly suits the middle-class taste of the Conways as we come to know them. The sole entrance is a stage left and the window Kay gazes from is in the middle of the back wall. In the mysterious Act 2, the entire set has been rotated by 90 degrees so that the sole entrance is now where Kay's window was with the window at stage right. Just as Act 2 shifts our perspective on the action in time, so the Perchaluk's set shifts our perspective in space. It's simple but brilliant. This is enhanced by Ereca Hassell's evocative lighting especially in the eerie glow Kay gazes at in Acts 1 and 2 and in the beautiful gradually dimming of the lights with tight spotlights on separate faces that ends the play. Each act is preceded by projected photo montages by David Cooper in which the faces of the various Conways appear and disappear in various configurations, all suitably accompanied by Paul Sportelli's ethereal, Satie-esque music
Munro draws superb performances from the cast so naturalistic and detailed that we really do feel as if we are peering through an invisible fourth wall as a family lives out its life. This is especially true in the extraordinarily complex first act when the Conways are preparing for charades being played off stage. The logistics of creating a seeming chaos on stage as the Conways root through old clothes for their costumes is mind-boggling. The cast know their characters so well that they fully meet Priestley's challenge of having to them pick up exactly where they left off after an intervening act as their future selves. The play demonstrates yet again why the Shaw Festival company has become so renowned for its ensemble productions. All of the cast show us in Act 1 the beginnings of the traits we will see in full in Act 2 and all are expert in detailing the passage of the 19 years between the two.
Nora McLellan plays Mrs. Conway as a self-centred, meddlesome, impractical woman who is already courting danger by choosing favourites among her children. In Act 2 McLellan accomplishes the difficult task of making us sympathize with the plight of someone we dislike. Central among the six Conway children is Jenny L. Wright as Kay, whose sensitivity already makes her seem detached even in the midst of her own party and prepares us for the visions of foreboding she has in Act 3. Laurie Paton as Madge is as embittered and petty 19 years later as she was so emphatically idealistic when we first meet her. Similarly, the dislike Jane Perry's Hazel shows Ernest Beevers is so exaggerated it is no surprise to find her married to him 19 years later. Susie Burnett as the youngest Conway, Carol, is excellent at showing us a one of those children so full of life they seem fated not to live long. Peter Krantz plays the eldest Conway, Alan, the only one who seems not to change in the 19 years between acts 1 and 2. He is thought of as a failure and non-entity in 1919 and is so in 1938. In a role poles apart from his Maxim de Winter of last year, Krantz's Alan shuffles purposelessly about the set and says little. Yet, he is the one who holds the key not only to how people can cope when things go wrong but also to the meaning of the play itself. Krantz's achievement is to make us increasingly fascinated by a character everyone but Kay ignores. Bruce Davies as Mrs. Conway's favourite, Robin, is excellent as both the young man happily returned from the war and as the drunken lout he becomes.
Rounding out the cast, Jan Alexandra Smith, as a friend of Hazel, sharply distinguishes the silly girl she is in Act 1 from the woman in Act 2 whose marriage has become a nightmare. Douglas Hughes is excellent at conveying differing kinds of awkwardness, first as a friend of the family and later at Mrs. Conway's lawyer. Simon Bradbury, distances himself even further from his earlier roles in farce as Ernest Beevers, the man pursuing Hazel, seeming merely antisocial in Act 1 but revealed in Act 2 as a character of the basest sort.
Time and the Conways is a play that demands patience
and close attention. Only partway into Act 3 do we become aware
of where the play is heading. It is to the credit of Munro and
his cast that the play engages us so completely without the benefit
of a traditional plot. For, indeed, our patience and attention
are rewarded in a way far beyond what the usual mystery can offerwhat
is revealed might actually change the way you think.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
One of the easiest ways to see the difference between the two largest theatre festivals in Canada is to note that while this year the Stratford Festival is presenting Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for the fifth time (albeit in the 4-act version) and the only Wilde it has ever done, the Shaw Festival is presenting A Woman of No Importance, the fourth play in their survey of Wilde's dramatic works. While Earnest may be Wilde's greatest and best-known play, it is also an anomaly in his oeuvre, in which flippant epigrammatic wit is more commonly mixed with sentimentality, melodrama and social criticism. Surveying all of Wilde's plays as the Shaw Festival is doing does everyone who loves theatre a far greater service than merely trotting out his greatest hit time after time.
The Shaw Festival production makes the best possible case for A Woman of No Importance. One does not exit the play with the commonly held notion that this is the least successful of Wilde's four social comedies; rather, one leaves feeling that this play provides the clearest insight into Wilde's real views of British society and of the relations of men and women. The play begins much in the Earnest mode with a group of characters in a country house trading epigrams, but once the American visitor, Hester Wolsey, gives her speech condemning the hollowness of British society, immediately followed by the entrance of the wronged Woman on the title, it is as if the veil of pleasant triviality we have been enjoying as been lifted to reveal a core of corruption that must be faced. As this play demands, the Shaw company rises to the challenge of exposing the passion that lies beneath the deceptive surface of wit.
What sets the slight plot in motion is a party at the country house of Lady Hunstanton where the witty but thoroughly amoral Lord Illingworth announces that he has made the young Gerald Arbuthnot his secretary. During the gathering of a group of upper class eccentrics, Illingworth and his equally amoral female counterpart, Mrs. Allonby, bet on whether Illingworth can seduce the visiting American Hester Worsley, who is in love with Gerald. Events come to a head with the arrival of Mrs. Arbuthnot, who was seduced by Illingworth 20 years ago and who became Gerald's mother, leaving her son and everyone else to believe the father is dead. The play ultimately comes down to a contest of wills between mother and father for possession of their son.
The play is a triumph for Mary Haney as Mrs. Arbuthnot. The incredible intensity she brings to her character cuts through the potential melodrama of the role and totally involves us in her plight. She makes viscerally exciting what could in any other hands seem hopelessly clichéd. As her undoer, Lord Illingworth, Jim Mezon must share in her triumph because he brings a complexity to a character who could easily seem merely a villain. He makes us see that Illingsworth's paradoxical epigrams are not just a cover for his amorality but rather a symptom of it.
The same is true of Brigitte Robinson in the role of Mrs. Allonby. In her early banter with Illingworth she draws the same amount of laughter as he does, but she delivers her long speech on what the ideal man is like in such a cynical way that she draws none. This is not a flaw since it prepares for the change in atmosphere that comes over the play with Hester's response of disgust and Mrs. Arbuthnot's entrance.
As the American Hester Worsley, Severn Thompson adds another to the collection of impassioned, idealistic young women she has played. Her forceful speech condemning the very people whose wit we have been enjoying is central to the play's change of mood. Mike Wasko does very well in the role of the innocent boy, intrigued with the power Lord Illingworth offers, true to the love Hester offers and finally convinced by the moral stance his mother demands.
Sharry Flett plays Lady Hunstanton, the hostess for the party that lasts for the first three acts. While vivacious and charming, she makes us wonder increasingly about her character's muddling of what is significant with that is trivial, symbolic of Wilde's upper class in general.
Jennifer Phipps plays Lady Caroline, one of the visitors, as an early study for Lady Bracknell from Earnest. Here her domineering is confined to bullying her husband played by Norman Browning, who is able to draw a clear, humorous portrait of this man despite having very few lines.
Jillian Cook plays Lady Stutfield as a more troubling version of Lady Hunstanton, agreeing enthusiastically with whoever last spoke, no matter what their point of view. Bernard Behrens makes the minor role of Archdeacon Daubeny a treat as each of his hearty statements about his wife reveals ever more unpleasant facts about her ill health. The guest list is rounded out with Lorne Kennedy playing Mr. Kelvil, MP, and Tony van Bridge as Lord Alfred Rufford.
The play is beautifully designed by William Schmuck, whose costumes suggest the Victorian period in the black-clad Lady Caroline and its immanent demise with Lady Hunstanton's colourful pre-Raphaelite gown and Hester's simple white dress. The set is well lit by Michael Kruse, who is especially good at suggesting the morning chill in Mrs. Arbuthnot's house.
The reviews of the opening night performance by the main Toronto papers were not enthusiastic and mentioned director Susan Ferley's inability to help the actors make the transition from comedy to melodrama. Seeing the production six weeks later, I noticed no such difficulty. The actors seemed fully in command. Ferley, who has never directed at the Shaw before, much less at the intimate Court House Theatre, used much simpler blocking patterns than one is used to seeing there. I don't know why she has set the play in autumn. If she were following Northrop Frye, winter would have been more appropriate as the season of irony. Autumn is for tragedy. In this play irony is the dominant mode, not merely in the flippant verbal irony of party guests, but also in the more fundamental irony Wilde promotes that the Woman, which his contemporaries along with Illingworth would regard as of "no importance," not only demands to be heard but triumphs.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile