Stage Door Reviews of
Shaw Festival 1999 Season
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-lake

(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)


The Madras House

Stage Door guest review by Jonathan Harrison
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

"The Madras House" would make a wonderful TV mini series. Written in 1910, Harley Granville-Barker’s play is a bit of a marathon for today’s audiences. Splitting it up into distinct parts of the same story would give four workable pieces each of which would rivet an audience. And if it were split up and made into a TV mini series I’d want to see the Niagara-on-the-Lake’s, Shaw Festival version. I was at their opening of this production last week, and found much to admire.

"The Madras House" is playing at the Court House Theatre. Consequently production qualities are defined by a space that demands the play be performed with an audience on three sides of the stage. The audience has to be able to look over any pieces of furniture, and the stage beyond the backdrop is not deep, creating other limitations, but those of you who know the Shaw Festival, will know the Shaw Festival laughs at limitations.

Granville-Barker’s set calls for four locations: two different houses, a business office and a fashion showroom. Peter Hartwell defines his set with a chair on castors, four bench-like couches and a wall of windows. Add Ereca Hassell’s lighting to this arrangement, have Neil Munro direct the action and "The Madras House" takes form.

The story is of a fashion designer Constantine Madras (played by Peter Millard) estranged from his wife. In the fashion house which his son now runs, events occur which merit discussion. A young worker is pregnant by another worker. A fashion show is put on for an American buyer. Constantine comes home after thirty years in the middle East, no longer a Christian but a Mohammedan. The son comes to terms with a life spent in the pursuit of fashion and art rather than . . . what? Should there be more?

The current production is the North American premier of a play that is now ninety years old. As first produced it must have been a bit of a stunner. Act one introduces Madras’s wife, Amelia (Jillian Cook) visiting with her sister, Katherine Huxtable (Donna Belleville) and her six daughters. Each young girl carries a black bible emblazoned with a bright white cross, like a shield of virtue against life itself. The readily evident matriarchal power of Katherine Huxtable is enhanced by the chair with castors which sits in the middle of the stage. With Huxtable in it, it is aimed at the action of the dialogue by whoever is nearest to take up the torch. It becomes a clever ballet with the conversation as the music, the daughters as the corps de ballet and Huxtable as the Prima Ballerina.

The ebb and flow of this scene is in wonderful contrast to the still and quiet pall of the second, the interview of the errant young girl with the baby in her tummy. Here the four couches point accusingly at each other while the story, clarified by director Neil Munro’s colourful narrative, moves its finger of blame from girl to man and back again.

The fashion show following the intermission would have been an eye opener for much of Granville-Barker’s audience. It moves from outer wear to underwear, totally seduces the imagination of the American buyer (Douglas E. Hughes) and would totally beguile the unsuspecting audience. The last act shows the selflessness of the younger Madras (Blair Williams) and his fresh wife, Jessica (Phillipa Domville). Its the act in which I decided the play would make a great mini series for television, because by then I was a bit tired of the dialogue and ready for bed.

But its a production that is beautifully acted and cunningly well thought out. You’ll enjoy all the acting but Michael Ball as Mr Huxtable has a wonderfully quiet habit of holding onto people while he talks at them. Its what Granville-Barker wanted to do when he wrote the Madras House. . . to hold you still and talk at you.

 

Opening last Friday at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake was Noel Coward’s "Easy Virtue", a 1924 comedy and companion piece to "Hay Fever". Coward and the gentry didn’t mix terribly well and both these pieces illustrate the contention with which he viewed the problem.

"Easy Virtue" shows what can happen when a sophisticated, woman-of-the-world, marries into a family that knows little other than how to spend the summer playing tennis and how to put on a ball. All well and good if your life hasn’t already been spiced with the naughty bits of Paris and New York, as has Larita’s.

Larita (Goldie Semple) marries John Whittaker (Kevin Bundy) the son of wealthy country home owner, the Colonel Whittaker (David Schurman). The mother (Patricia Hamilton) is soon at odds with the new daughter-in-law as are daughters Marion (Kelli Fox) and Hilda (Fiona Byrne). The mother’s objection, she tells her daughters, is that her son has been "made a fool of, just as your father was made a fool of."

But that’s not what’s happened really. What’s happened is that a nice guy has fallen for a nice woman but they simply were not meant to be a couple. As today’s radio expert, Dr. Laura constantly reminds us, ‘love is not enough’.

Before he became famous, Coward visited at a country house and was greeted with the sort of contempt he attributed to the landed gentry. He sees Larita in the same light he was in then. He would have us see her as the bored party girl forced to stay indoors and read (at least she got her hands on a copy of Sodom and Gomorrah) or as the capable young princess who knows better than to waste time fretting over where to put the garden ‘fairy lights’. She flings cigarette butts and pelts books petulantly.

William Schmuck’s set brought gasps of appreciation from an audience already used to the gloriously elaborate reality with which he approaches his work. It is of the interior (and some of the exterior) of the Whitakker’s country estate. Alan Brodie’s lighting (and his rain) added to the glory.

Director (and Shaw Festival Artistic Director) Christopher Newton met the challenge of this particular Coward piece by balancing the drama of the situation with the comedy. The mother punctuates an opening letter of complaint, for example, by slapping the written page face down on her writing desk, the youngest daughter (Fiona Byrne) doesn’t walk anywhere, preferring instead, to dance, or skip, or hop. Father’s benevolence reeks fondly of pipe tobacco. I was thankful that the Shaw had the resources to bring this wonderful play to light . . . For Arts’ Sake.

(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

 And speaking of comments, here's what YOU had to say...
 

 In your review you mention the young worker gets pregnant by another worker. She was actually carrying constantine madras' baby. An important development in the fabric of the play.

Is it possible the third act put you to sleep?


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