The Niagara Blog:
Make War on War
Courtesy Shaw Festival
ROYAL GEORGE THEATRE
May 2 - October 19
by BERNARD SHAW
Directed by JACKIE MAXWELL
Designed by JUDITH BOWDEN
Lighting designed by ALAN BRODIE
Original music and sound design by JOHN GZOWSKI
"There are only two things necessary to Salvation. Money and Gunpowder."
George Bernard Shaw was prescient; his plays stand the test of time and contemporary issues such as the
civil war in Syria,
bombings in Boston, the world oblivious to the lessons of the Great Wars. That's why his tradition prevails here in Niagara on the Lake, and accordingly,
Major Barbara at the Royal George is a play that pits idealism (Barbara) versus realism (her father, Andrew Undershaft) with the ultimate stake, the salvation of souls.
Director Jackie Maxwell adroitly opens the play, with Barbara (Nicole Underhay) centre stage, evangelizing for the Salvation Army with amazing spirit and commitment that seems impossible to be denied. Her smile radiates confidence and strength, and the audience is glued to her persona throughout. She demonstrates pluck by tangling with brutish Bill Walker (James Pendarves) who punches women in the face, and her zeal captures her father's heart, but ultimately and ironically, he in turn, captures hers.
Her father (Benedict Campbell) forces her to re-evaluate her beliefs when his wealth simply purchases the Army and Barbara's superior, Mrs. Baines (Jenny L. Wright). As they march off, Campbell playing a trombone, disillusioned, Barbara sheds her uniform. However, in the second act, a visit to Undershaft's ideal community of Perivale St. Andrews leads her to recognize that the munitions factory is as necessary to redemption as blood is necessary to salvation and evil to good. "Life is all one" she intones, and she will return to the Army to enact her father's gospel, the so-called "trickle down" effect that Republicans perpetually espouse while the U.S. traditionally leads every nation in arms sales throughout the world. From Undershaft, we learn that there are only two things necessary to salvation, money and gunpowder!
While Underhay owns act one, the great arms industrialist of Europe, Mephistopheles and the Prince of Darkness to Adolphus Cusins (Graeme Somerville), Barbara's love interest, her estranged father (Benedict Campbell) commands the second act with a new gospel of society's redemption. Like Cusins, he is bent on winning Barbara and the three must band together to determine society's course.
Somerville plays the laconic poet and Greek scholar determined to marry Barbara, joining the Salvation Army as a result but, as Undershaft remarks, the hollowness of his Army drum symbolizes the void of his conviction. A "collector of religions," he seeks that which brings reality, power, and joy to the people. Undershaft adopts him as his successor.
Underhay, Campbell and Somerville comprise a powerful triumvirate on stage, each blessed with extraordinary skill. We relish their feisty exchanges and marvel at the strength of Maxwell's cast with the likes of Thom Allison, Peter Krantz and Jenny L. Wright playing minor roles while Laurie Paton as Lady Britomart Undershaft holds her own with the entire family including Ben Sanders as Stephen, Ijeoma Emesowun as Sarah and her suitor, Wade Bogart-O'Brien as Charles, reduced to silly British harrumphs until the end when his facetiousness finally rings true.
The play is timely. Given the current battle for
gun control in the U.S., it will spark debate. Undershaft and the
NRA have much in common. Is a good man armed with a gun the only answer to a bad man armed with a gun? With the Constitution guaranteeing the right to bear arms, which might have been appropriate in 1787, are we currently reduced to a Wild West scenario of who can draw the fastest with weapons readily available on the Internet? And to up the ante, are
military drones the answer to terrorism, controlled on another continent by someone who works a regular shift, unable to empathize with the carnage and death inflicted thousands of miles away on innocent bystanders or should we refer to them as collateral damage, like bruised fruit at the market? Good and evil; idealism versus realism; welcome to the world of George Bernard Shaw!