Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists
What Happens When You Are Nice To People You Don't Really Like

The cast of The Charity that Began at Home. Photo by David Cooper
The cast of The Charity that Began at Home. Photo by David Cooper

It seems not a week goes by without one being asked to donate to something or someone, ranging from youthful, uniformed cadets selling apples outside the beer store to persistent phone calls from the Diabetes Association to large lotteries run by Heart and Stroke and a never ending list of supplicants wedged in between such that when one inevitably passes a derelict panhandler sitting forlornly on the street with hand stretched out ("Spare some change?"), a donor fatigue sets in.

Intellectually, we understand what's going on. Thomas Piketty's popular new book, " Capital in the Twenty-First Century," suggests that government policies fail to diminish inequality in democracies under rampant (greedy) capitalism which ensures that the economic return for the wealthy far outstrips any growth by labour, thus incessantly separating the two. It's the old rich get richer theme, 99% (us) versus the 1% (Bill Gates and friends) who own just about everything in the world, particularly the legislators whom they have purchased like common stock in a store.

In the current provincial election in Ontario, the candidate seemingly for the rich 1% proposes the elimination of 100,000 public servants (traditional scapegoats; damn those teachers and nurses) to magically produce 1,000,000 new jobs - presto, like a magician who pulls a rabbit from his hat, the old voodoo, trickle-down, illogical, Mike Harris - Ronald Reagan rant based upon arrogance, bluff and deceit. If one buys into this rhetoric, I have a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.

Those born in the hard-pressed economics of the Depression era were fond of telling their children that charity begins at home. And at Shaw, Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell serves up the timely parody, The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists by St John Hankin running at the intimate Court House Theatre.

Maxwell cites it as "archeological programming where we uncover lost theatrical gems from deep in our mandate period." And she has passed the directorial baton to the former 22-year Shaw Artistic Director, Christopher Newton who gets to work with an able ensemble that he helped create at Shaw.

Julia Course as Margery and Martin Happer as Hugh Verreker. Photo by David Cooper The play's premise - under the influence of altruistic preacher Basil Hylton (Graeme Somerville), Lady Denison (Fiona Reid) and her daughter Margery (Julia Course) host a country house party by inviting social pariahs. They think that true hospitality consists in entertaining those no one else would willingly have in their company. We learn that "False hospitality is inviting people because you like them. True hospitality is inviting them because they'd like to be asked." Even Lady Denison's selection of servants based upon her new beliefs slowly begins to backfire. One gives notice, another is impregnated, nobody is happy.

We are treated to - General Bonsor (Jim Mezon), a boring talkaholic; Mr. Firket (Neil Barclay), an insistent salesman; Ms Triggs (Sharry Flett), a nasty German teacher; Mrs. Horracks (Donna Belleville), a dull, pretentious woman albeit with a great outfit and wig; Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer), a down-on-his luck, selfish cynic; Basil Hylton (Graeme Somerville), the spiritual guru behind Lady Denison's new doctrine, and Mrs. Eversleigh (Laurie Paton), Lady Margery's skeptical, quarrelling sister, disagreeable in her own right. Given the wacky characters, the household quickly dissolves into disorder, love strangely blossoms between Margery and Verreker who carries a shady past, and we eventually discover what real charity means.

It's a silly grouping and the audience truly loved it. And although some parts are marginal in content and everyone is dysfunctional in extremis, gifted actors brilliantly maximize their effect. There is one sequence when Fiona Reid uses facial body language to try to spark a discussion, which is quite comic. Julia Course outdoes pious Mother Teresa in her quest for sainthood; Laurie Patton is strident when no one else is realistic; Graeme Somerville embodies the "keep passion locked up" philosophy, spouting homilies on aiding those who are most faulty; Jim Mezon is the person you do not want to be stuck with in a social setting; Neil Barclay has few lines but is always selling automobiles; Flett whom we would like to slap, lives purely on anger vapour; and Martin Happer is the poverty-struck lad who wins the lottery and then, in an epiphany of moral conscience, gives it up to demonstrate Hankin's thesis.

Shaw called Hankin (1869-1909) "the most gifted writer of the high comedy of the kind that is a stirring and important criticism of life." Despite success as a playwright, he took his own life, tying two seven-pound dumbbells around his neck and drowning in the River Ithon. His work was largely neglected, yet contemporary Shaw audiences have relished the two previous comedies, The Return of the Prodigal (2001 and 2002) and The Cassilis Engagement (2007).

Directed by Christopher Newton, designed by William Schmuck with lighting by Louise Guinand, Charity runs to October 11. See:

Donna Belleville as Mrs. Horrocks and Sharry Flett as Miss. Triggs. Photo by David Cooper  Fiona Reid as Lady Denison and Julia Course as Margery. Photo by David Cooper  Fiona Reid as Lady Denison, Jim Mezon as General Bonsor and Laurie Paton as Mrs. Eversleigh. Photo by David Cooper   Graeme Somerville as Basil Hylton and Julia Course as Margery. Photo by David Cooper   Graeme Somerville as Basil Hylton and Martin Happer as Hugh Verreker. Photo by David Cooper  Julia Course as Margery and Martin Happer as Hugh Verreker. Photo by David Cooper   Laurie Paton as Mrs. Eversleigh and Donna Belleville as Mrs. Horrocks. Photo by David Cooper

Director's Notes by Christopher Newton
At the beginning of the twentieth century there were five major playwrights associated with the Royal Court Theatre in London. The most famous of them was Bernard Shaw, the most extraordinary was Granville Barker (writer, actor and director on a level with Stanislavsky), the third was John Galsworthy (now remembered as a novelist), the fourth, John Masefield, who became the greatly loved Poet Laureate, and the fifth was St John Hankin. Back in the 1990s I looked at Hankin's plays. He didn't avoid ethical dilemmas as Pinero did, he didn't indulge in melodrama like Henry Arthur Jones. He wasn't like Shaw or Barker. I didn't know what to make of him.

At the end of my time as Artistic Director, I decided to take a chance on The Return of the Prodigal. I had a superb cast who were up for a challenge and we found that his arguments sprang from an honest place, his wit was surprising, and his characters, even the minor ones, were fully formed and intriguing. And yet Hankin disappeared from the stage, as he disappeared from life.

Further thought and the tremendous popular success of our production caused me to look for connections. There is a touch of Chekhov (Hankin was one of the very first to know of Chekhov through the translations of George Calderon). He seems like a precursor of Coward with the wit springing naturally from the action. But at heart he is unique, as one can see from The Charity that Began at Home - a joy for actors, accessible to the audience, and with a layered, acerbic and recognizably personal view of the world. He should never have been forgotten.

St John Hankin is often very precise about music. In The Return of the Prodigal he calls for a specific Beethoven piano sonata, in The Cassilis Engagement there are two songs, but in Charity the only mention of music is Mrs Eversleigh's exhortation to Margery to keep up her piano practice. This minor reference took me to the piano repertoire where I looked for something Hankin- esque which combined a superficial delight with a dark underpinning. The Fantasy- Waltzes of William Alwyn, which make reference to the period of the play from a more modern perspective, seemed to fit perfectly with the mood of the piece. For the curtain call I chose pure exuberance but still in the piano repertoire: the-first of the Curacao Waltzes for Two Pianos by Robert Rojer.

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