Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Shaw's The Entertainer - Death of a Salesman meets Long Day's Journey into Night

Corrine Koslo
Shaw's The Entertainer - Corrine Koslo

John Osborne's The Entertainer opened this past Saturday evening at Shaw's newest, compact Studio theatre located conveniently adjacent to the much larger Festival Theatre. Peter Hartwell's setting, a cramped, seedy British flat, hemmed in by two tiny music hall stages at each end, is decadently appropriate for the weighty subject matter, the decline and fall of the British Empire, employing an "entertainment" metaphor which takes three long hours and could be shortened (please) with Shaw's capable cast able to set the story line more efficiently, particularly in the first act, viewed by the audience like a sporting event from a bank of seats flanking either side, much like at a football game or in this case, a verbal tennis match, pitting Archie Rice (Benedict Campbell) against the world as he alternates mean serves from either music hall stage while a sexy-looking woman introduces each round as in the bloody sport of boxing with its fleshy numerical signage, allowing critics to keep score as the match proceeds.

Osborne, after Look Back in Anger (1956), was asked to write this play for Laurence Olivier after decades of Shakespearean success, becoming the pre-eminent English actor of his time, and the play is a tour de force opportunity for the fortunate actor who plays Archie Rice, the entertainer, a music-hall performer in an age when music halls had all but disappeared. Archie is an empty, nasty protagonist aware that he is "dead behind the eyes," a middle-aged, tawdry comic/singer/dancer, and Campbell delivers, most memorably when desperately crying out to his daughter Jean (Krista Colosimo) "speak to me," at the end of the first act and then upping the ante at the end of act two with an eerie rendition of soulful melody he heard sung by a "negress in Canada," his deplorable single lifetime moment of truth.

In 1957, Great Britain, once the most dominant empire in the world with far flung colonies, was no longer so great. After the ignominy of Dunkirk, its soldiers run into the sea by Nazi Germany, had it not been for a few heroic fighter pilots and a steady stream of supplies from the U.S. as well as the late U.S. entry into the fray, WWII featuring a German nationalism run amuck, might have had a different outcome.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi along with Nehru shaped India's independence from Britain, another kick in the groin, and on May 14, 1948, the British Mandate expired with the new Jewish state of Israel formally established in Palestine, a border-forming nightmare thanks to Britain and the UN that fosters perpetual hostility between Arab and Jew ever since.

Then, like the proverbial geo-political cherry on top of a melting sundae, the Suez Crisis erupted with a final super power showdown in which Britain, aided by France and Israel, attacked Egypt and Nasser's nationalized canal, advancing deeply into Arab territory until the U.S. had had enough and Eisenhower emphatically called them off, dramatically revealing to the world that a new marshal was indeed in town. Utilizing the Suez motif and a mass demonstration in Trafalgar Square, Osborne depicts a Britain battered beyond endurance, at the brink of financial and moral bankruptcy.

Benedict Campbell   Christine Colosimo   David Schurmann   Ken Stewart   Peter Hartwell

Jackie Maxwell's cast is poignant in portraying the inevitable descent, a compilation of Long Day's Journey into Night combined with Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman. We are subjected to painful family/country disintegration, with a few characters quite awesome in depicting that account. Archie's father, Billy, (David Schurmann) who retired in time, leaving Archie to struggle on, is a shabby relic of a rotting milieu.

Schurmann's stabbing bitterness is terrific and he garnered a large cheer from the audience at the curtain as did Corrine Koslo for her depiction of Phoebe Rice whose confusion and anger genuinely frightens. The younger generation does not get the depth provided by Osborne to their elders. Archie's son Frank (Ken James Stewart) and daughter Jean (Krista Colosimo) between slogging gin with the family, get in a few shots, but both roles are minor except for one brief exchange when daughter takes on father, Jean portrayed with some vague kind of purpose and political interest in her life, but skewered relentlessly by Archie. Osborne uses Jean to ask incredulously, "Is this all about a glove waving from a carriage?" a lovely broadside at Britain's monarchy. And as with actors on stage, this play requires a drink or two or three after experiencing such prolonged ennui to help numb the senses. Shaw's cast is so strong that one of my favourites, Ric Reid, gets only a minor role as Archie's brother in the third act.

A year and a half ago, Ben Campbell in Shaw's cafeteria told me with much glee that he would play the role of a lifetime in Peter Hinton's Macbeth staged in Ottawa. I saw it, but on that big, empty stage, it didn't compare with productions experienced at Stratford. And I think it's not Macbeth, but Archie that's the role of a lifetime. I cannot think of many actors who could successfully create someone so anti-heroic and agonizingly self-loathing, a desperate comic struggle amidst the faded glamour of sordid surroundings. Archie is a monster. Like Lear, he abuses his children. Like Othello, he's ready to abandon Phoebe, his wife and also kill off his father financially to survive. He rebukes his daughter's altruism, dominates and emasculates his son all the while dancing and singing and telling lewd jokes. At the conclusion of act three, Campbell, going down fighting with the ship, concludes, "You've been a good audience ... a very good audience. Let me know where you're working tomorrow night - and I'll come and see YOU." Wow, what a role!

The Entertainer - John Osborne

The Entertainer - 1960

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