NOTL's Library Program Features Shaw Director Blair Williams
Ric Reid as Der Führer. Photo by Emily Cooper
George Bernard Shaw lived until the ripe old age of 94 and amassed 50 plays and 5 novels in that period including Geneva which has been adapted at the Shaw Festival by Canadian playwright,
John Murrell, this year into Peace in Our Time: A Comedy Shaw's look at international diplomacy and justice, directed by Blair Williams, who follows Peter Hinton at the NOTL Library Series, In Conversion with...
Leonard Connelly introduced Blair Williams after a brief overview of Shaw, the great social activist, woman's rights advocate, co-founder of the
London School of Economics, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and an Oscar, a vegetarian, teetotaler and unfortunate admirer of Communism as well as several forceful European leaders (dictators) during the 30s and 40s which moved him from optimism to disillusion when the League of Nations did not prevent WWII. Shaw died in 1950. The Festival produced Geneva in 1988, and Blair Williams was in the cast.
A German, a Canadian and a Latin American walk into the dysfunctional League of Nations diplomatic office. Belle Browning (Diana Donnelly), a plucky, albeit under qualified, receptionist attempts to respond to their grievances; however, she unknowingly sets in motion an international incident that concludes with an outrageous trial at The Hague. Here, the world's most feared dictators -
Il Duce (Neil Barclay),
Der Führer (Ric Reid) and
El Generalísimo (Lorne Kennedy) - take centre stage and attempt to defend their controversial
and brutal actions, but end up as comical shadows of their historical selves.
Williams joked that to cut Shaw "is like pulling a thread on a sweater, not as easy as one thinks."
He says the European dictators have been replaced today by corporations which are not as easy to place on trial. He revealed some of the background in rehearsal to another good-sized audience. For example, how does one play Hitler? Ric Reid was having difficulty with the task; however, a staged entrance fall à la Chevy Chase in SNL provides the laughter that lightens the load, and they use not the names, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco but the words for "leader" in each language.
Williams sees theatre as a "collective conspiracy, a seamless journey from one end of the tunnel to the other," and admits that "he has a cast to die for." His job is to be "every pair of eyes and to ensure that we leave seeing the world differently than when we arrived." He says that even after Shaw, "we still look at our potential destruction because we can't move from selfishness to selflessness." The question he wants to leave us with is, "Don't you think we deserve better?"
As I ponder the current political scene with the likes of the Ford brothers in Toronto and the senate fiasco in Ottawa, the answer is a resounding - yes!
Williams says that Shaw was aware of "the teaching power of humour and that his jokes are always smart." He maintains that every Shaw character is eloquently and powerfully presented. Williams sees humour arriving from "sudden realizations or understandings," and quotes Shaw that "every line has a bullet and a thought."
On the first day of rehearsal he and Ric Reid watched the
Charlie Chapman film,
"The Great Dictator." Performing Hitler was "a delicate dance. At first we didn't know how we were going to get out of the lobster trap." However, a stage prop (globe) courtesy of Camellia Koo (set design), helped fashion the way, and besides Reid's comic trip, there are other ways to rid his gross reality such as the subtle change in Hitler's swastika design.
There were lots of questions from the audience, and Williams explained much of their changes through the review process. For example, he originally used 60s anti-war music at the beginning of the play, but that was scrapped as ineffective.
Peace in Our Time: A Comedy opens June 7 at the Court House Theatre (26 Queen Street) and runs to October 12, featuring Michael Ball, Neil Barclay, Andrew Bunker, Diana Donnelly, Charlie Gallant, Patrick Galligan, Claire Jullien, Lorne Kennedy, Kevin McGarry, Jeff Meadows, Moya O'Connell, Ric Reid and Sanjay Talwar.