Gord Rand as Leonard Charteris and Marla McLean as Grace Tranfield in The Philanderer. Photo by David Cooper
As philander-in-chief, Leonard Charteris (Gord Rand) leads a troubled life. A thinker, not given to emotional whims, he is the philosopher-in-chief of the Ibsen Club (Shaw deeply admired Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet Henrik Ibsen) whose membership rules state that if a candidate is female, she cannot be womanly, and if male, not manly. In other words, traditional sex roles are obsolete. Or are they?
Randy Mr. Rand's dilemma in the first act that opens with him making love on the floor to the widow, Grace Tranfield
(Marla McLean) is that his outraged lover, Julia Craven, (Moya O'Connell) the spoiled elder daughter of a stuffy army officer (Ric Reid) arrives, demanding his ardor and determined to have it out with McLean who simply goes to bed.
The issue gets complicated further when Grace's father, Cuthbertson (Michael Ball), a drama critic, arrives with a long-lost school friend he has run into by chance at the theater - Julia's father, Colonel Craven. Shaw gets in some good shots at critics as Ball and Reid help up the ante as do Colonel Craven's sharp-tongued, assertive younger daughter, Sylvia (Harveen Sandhu) and Dr. Paramore (Jeff Meadows), an ambitious physician who is infatuated with stormy Julia, who later add spice to the play, and Shaw rips into modern science with Dr. Paramore, quite pleased that he thinks he has discovered a new, fatal disease in Colonel Craven. When he reads in a medical journal that the disease is either new or fatal, he is quite miserable, and Reid and Meadows milk the irony, Reid forgoing vegetarianism after a deplorable year of fasting on Meadows' green regimen. To complete the exceptional cast, Guy Bannerman plays and looks like Ibsen himself.
Directed by Lisa Peterson, the action (despite the sex) sags for two acts, but comes to life in act three. Meanwhile, throughout all three acts, designer Sue Lepage reveals her mastery with gorgeous sets: crimson as befits the opening fireworks, then green shiny glass for the progressive Ibsen Club and finally blue with smoke to reflect the complicated dénouement, based upon society's male-dominant laws on divorce. Lepage is aided and abetted by wonderful lighting designed by Kevin Lamotte and original music and sound by Mark Bennett.
Shaw ran his original script by a divorced lady friend, and she suggested that he burn contentious act three. He rewrote the act, but did not discard the original. For the first time, the Shaw Festival has staged this play as Shaw had intended.
The three Shaw leads - Rand, McLean and O'Connell are all wonderfully skilled, and the play energizes big time in the revived final scene; however, Canadian divorce laws have come a long way since the 1960s, so the issue is no longer intriguing or relevant.
For Shaw, it was the opposite. And in the program notes, we learn that "in his mid-thirties, Shaw was simultaneously having affairs with two women, a widow somewhat older than himself and an actress slightly younger. Both were highly temperamental; the widow was possessive, and a confrontational scene ensued. Shaw poured it, and the resulting emotional fallout, into The Philanderer, published in 1898 as one of the three plays he designated 'unpleasant.'"
The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw plays at
the Festival Theatre to October 12. Running time is approximately 2.5 hours including one intermission.
2014 Season - Behind the Scenes at The Shaw
Director's Notes by Lisa Peterson
I'm a self-proclaimed GBS geek. Ever since an early mentor turned me on to Major Barbara, I've been in love with the crazy ferocity of the ideas and their expression in Shaw's plays. There's something about the abandon and the sharp knife of Shaw's brain that affects me viscerally, makes my heart pound, makes me feel jazzed. Brecht called Shaw a "theatrical terrorist" and that's what I think he is. Shaw wanted to blow up hypocrisy and boring old plays and conventional thinking and that's why he's not just the pretty drawing-room writer people sometimes mistake him for.
So I love Shaw, but I'd never loved The Philanderer. I'd seen it a few times and always found it pretty conventional, too much like a drawing-room comedy for my taste. But then Jackie (Maxwell) asked me to look at the original - and abandoned - third Act. And I got excited. Because that third Act felt suddenly so modern. It's almost devoid of stage directions. There's little concern for the getting of the laugh. There's a lot of concern for anti-sentimentality and a very fresh voice in there. And even though we may not have to worry now about the particular (and confining) Victorian marriage and divorce laws that so enraged Shaw, there are plenty of other "pigheaded laws" hanging around. So it's not hard to stay engaged as we watch Shaw's smart people struggle against stupid legislation.
It's incredibly fun to feel the birth of Shaw's playwriting voice in this play. After all, it was only his second play, and he was learning fast. Widower's Houses, his first play, is kind of creaky and overburdened by the big ideas Shaw wants to convey. But then comes The Philanderer and Shaw invents Leonard Charteris. He gives him all of the wit and paradoxical energy of himself and then throws two really strong women up there with him. The more time I spend with the energies of Leonard and Julia, the more convinced I become that Shaw was already starting to invent the idea of the Life Force, and that The Philanderer is actually a kind of early draft of Man and Superman. Julia and Leonard love each other in an impossible way, and might almost kill each other, just like Ann Whitefield and Jack Tanner. And the characters in this play are sexual beings. The opening stage directions tell us that "A lady and gentleman are making love to one another" - and it's awfully fun to take GBS at his word.
Like most great plays, this one is about the seismic rumblings of a changing world. Shaw's London is teeming with New Everything; the fathers in this play are reeling from it. And the main New Idea is that women might just be up to something. They don't have the vote yet, but they're gonna want it any minute now. Grace Tranfield, Sylvia Craven, and even "womanly" Julia Craven turn out to be vigorous individuals with a clear sense of self, and wit, and power. Again, this is only his second play and already Shaw was inventing his powerhouse women and throwing them into the kind of thrilling dialectical drama that he would become famous for.
I'm so happy to be mucking around in Shaw's original third Act. It feels naughty and invigorating. It was ahead of its time, and that's why his friend, Lady Colin Campbell, told him to throw it in the fire. He listened to her. He rewrote his play. In his careful script, he wrote, "Cancel all the foregoing" at the end of that particular notebook. But he didn't throw it into the fire. (And aren't we glad!)