Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Arms And The Man
A Swiss chocolate soldier and a dim-witted cavalry charge

Arms And The Man Cast
Arms And The Man Cast Courtesy

I saw Cabaret at the Festival Theatre and then Arms And The Man at the Royal George Theatre on the same weekend, and the combination was fitting, the former, a dark piece leading up to a world war set in Weimar Germany and the latter, a humorous piece at the very end of war set in Bulgaria.

Director Morris Panych has a star-studded cast to direct in Shaw's comedy about war and marriage (Is there much difference?) and the folklore that surround these often interchangeable items. (Watch "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?")

Graeme Somerville is perfect as Captain Bluntschli, a rational, understated Swiss mercenary fleeing for his life as the Serbs have been routed by Sergius Saranoff ( Martin Happer) who was pig-headed Graeme Somerville as Captain Bluntschli and Kate Besworth as Raina Petkoff. Photo by David Cooper and foolish enough to lead a Bulgarian cavalry charge directly at Serb machine guns but instead of being mowed down in a hail of bullets, the Serbs suddenly realize they have the wrong ammunition and must run for their lives. Thus, Mr. Shaw starts us off on the silliness of man and his action, for this dashing, conquering Bulgarian hero is really a complete klutz who lucks his way to victory. (Yes, Chauncey Gardiner, aka George W. Bush, does come to mind.)

On the run, a harried Somerville desperately climbs through a second-storey bedroom window and brandishing a revolver, asks the young woman there, Raina Petkoff ( Kate Besworth) to hide him. Besworth happens to be a well-to-do, impressionistic daughter of Major Petkoff ( Norman Browning) of the Bulgarian army, betrothed to Saranoff whom she idolizes, full of romantic illusions about love and war. Bluntschli quickly brings her up to speed with the realities of war, admitting that his gun is unloaded and telling her that experienced soldiers prefer to carry food (chocolate) rather than cartridges. Reassured of chocolate rather than cartridges in his pistol case, Raina agrees to hide him. Ever rational and proper despite being dead tired, Bluntschli demands that Raina advise her mother, and collapses on the bed.

Besworth is superb as the young, indulged woman who realizes when the two soldiers return at the end of the war and new battle lines are drawn that the thoughtful and resourceful Swiss soldier would make a far superior husband - at first, to the horror of her father and mother ( Laurie Paton) who is the real master of the house. Patton and Browning are typical of Panych's strong cast with the likes of gifted Claire Jullien (Louka) and equally talented Peter Krantz (Nicola) playing small parts as servants.

Martin Happer, looking spiffy as Sergius Saranoff, plays his inane role to the hilt with sudden profound verbal epiphanies that totally disconnect him from his natural impulses, and his virile, athletic frame is employed wonderfully in comic giant leaps over tables.

Set design appears to be leading the way at Shaw thus far this season first with Michael Gianfrancesco's Cabaret, and here, Ken MacDonald places the comic crowd inside a giant cuckoo clock, explained below in the Director's Notes.

Costume designer Charlotte Dean works her visual artistry, particularly well with the splendid Bulgarian military outfits. The lighting designed by Jason Hand and original music composed by Ryan deSouza add to the punch.

The audience loved this production as the capable cast milked Shaw's jokes and comic juxtapositions, leaving everyone in good humour at the end, the perfect antidote to Cabaret's bleak themes.

Morris Panych's Director's Notes found inside the theatre's program are as follows:
• "There have been exactly twenty-six days of actual global peace since the end of the last World War. You wouldn't think it, to meet your average, everyday individual, that we were such a warlike species, but perhaps it's less a singular expression than a collective one; the natural outcome of groups; the bigger we get, the worse. Tribes, states, nations, we take our sides. Does the reason really matter? So long as we have a side to take, and a flag to fly?"
• "In Arms and The Man, Shaw has lifted this question to new romantic heights, playing at both love and war; winding us up with his contradictions. One hundred years on, does it ring hollow; or is it truer than ever before that the folly of human nature is really human nature, and that we are destined to be forever locked in a battle to redeem ourselves, and give our existence some meaning? Perhaps the closer we get to the truth, the more absurd it becomes, and nothing changes. We fall in love and we go to war; now, it seems, and forever."
• "In developing an overarching theme for this production, designer Ken MacDonald and I started to explore the idea of kitsch, of over-the-top romanticism. Propaganda, in all its tacky manifestations, is, after all, a centre-piece of war. We liked the idea of a cuckoo clock because it employs two notions: the first, ornamental, the second, utterly practical. Behind the poetry and the rousing sentiment of war lies something more mechanical and prosaic, something more like machinery, geared to rouse our passions. As well, we liked the absurdity of lives lived inside a cuckoo clock because it seemed to fit with Shaw's reaching into new and exciting theatrical territory; a kind of early surrealism. More than anything, the clock represents our desire to find a theatrical statement that matches the quirkiness, humour and, ultimately, the precision of Shaw's play."


  • Kate Besworth as Raina Petkoff and Martin Happer as Major Sergius Saranoff. Photo by Emily Cooper
  • Kate Besworth as Raina Petkoff. Photo by Emily Cooper
  • Laurie Paton as Catherine Petkoff and Norman Browning as Major Paul Petkoff. Photo by Emily Cooper

  • Martin Happer as Major Sergius Saranoff and Claire Jullien as Louka. Photo by David Cooper
  • Peter Krantz as Nicola and Claire Jullien as Louka. Photo by David Cooper
  • Arms and The Man set. Photo by David Cooper


Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald talk about The Arsonists at Canadian Stage

A Candid Interview with Marla McLean and Graeme Somerville

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