Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

In Good King Charles's Golden Days - Shaw's "I Think; Therefore I Am"

Rick Reid
Rick Reid

Mix a philosopher-mathematician, an anti-organized religion rebel leader, a proud artist, a formidable actress and a politically astute King; have this bizarre group along with a few regal mistresses assemble at Sir Isaac Newton's home, and you have a recipe for George Bernard Shaw's Restoration comedy, In Good King Charles's Golden Days, a True History That Never Happened, a mouthful of a title and a play which recently did not merit good reviews from weighty Toronto pundits.

Laurie Paton Based on the first act, the critics are wrong. Unfortunately, there are two more acts. Shaw does tend to go on, the last act as necessary as one's appendix, a tedious pas de deux between King (Benedict Campbell) and Queen (Laurie Paton) lamenting the fact "the English will not be governed; that's why they will never amount to anything" and the intricate delicacies of regal matrimony skewed by assorted mistresses and intense problems of religion as the King does faithfully promise his fervent Portuguese wife that he will turn Catholic at the very end; however, by then, we do not care.

The second act is a long verbal battle between the King and his aggressive, impatient brother/successor, James, Duke of York (Andrew Bunker) on the topics of leadership and religion. Charles explains that to rule successfully, he needs to know what Tom, Dick and Harry think; hence the meeting of the minds at Newton's home. Not many leaders rule in this progressive fashion. JFK welcomed dissent. Barack Obama seems willing to hear all sides. However, most like Stephen Harper and his model, George W. Bush , lead lives of splendid isolation, hearing only what they want to hear. Fortunately, in democracies, we get to vote them out, and Shaw would welcome that.

Isaac Newton (Graeme Somerville) dominates the action in act one and rescues act two with his appearance towards the end. Newton, with his mathematical precision, able to determine mind-boggling calculations with ease, trips at the beginning and falls heavily to the floor, his reading material fluttering downward as well as his body in tribute to gravity, a nice touch by director, Eda Holmes. Somerville, not Campbell reigns at the centre of this intellectual universe, although the good King does keep all of the players in their proper batting order.

Shaw's cast is typically strong. Mrs Basham (Mary Haney), Newton's housekeeper, an energetic, overly protective, quick-tongued matron, tangles with anyone who does not appreciate her employer, constantly interrupted while trying to solve the puzzles of the universe, made real thanks to set director, Camellia Koo, with planetary orbits circling both the floor and ceiling, earth depicted as quite puny despite the great thoughts expressed on stage. Michael Gianfrancesco's costumes are exquisite, and often provide more light than the weighty arguments.

Ric Reid plays George Fox, head of the Quakers or Society of Friends with great gusto, and he is fun to watch during the myriad debates sponsored by Mr. Rowley, aka King Charles II (Campbell) who excels in that inquisitive yet limiting role.

Overall, the play is witty, mainly thanks to Somerville who, when the Duchess accuses Charles of having been unfaithful to her "a thousand times," calculates with absolute mathematical precision that the King would have to be almost three hundred years old for that to be true: "Figures cannot mock, because they cannot feel. That is their great quality and their great fault," he tells her. It's the same problem with ideas, but this cast knows how to inject passion into their ideas. The move around and circle each other like the planets and sometimes collide as with Newton and James wrestling at the end of act one and the beginning of act two.

This play was written in 1938-39 and is the progenitor of that genre where famous figures from the past accidentally bump into each other such as with comedian, Steve Martin's , contemporary play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile wherein Albert Einstein meets Pablo Picasso at a bar in Montmartre, Paris. Shaw's work is set in 1680 in Isaac Newton's study; Newton is depicted as a man more interested in decoding scripture than mathematics. When Shaw veers at the end totally towards a treatise on Restoration politics, the result becomes tedious.

The play's title derives from an 18th-century ballad about the Vicar of Bray, who, like a good Ottawa civil servant, clings to power under four different monarchs by simply switching his religion back and forth in pragmatic fashion. Shaw paints Charles II in the same utilitarian light, more concerned with keeping his head upon his shoulders, alas, unlike his father, disposed of by Oliver Cromwell.

Goethe advised us that "Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world," an appropriate directive for this Shaw play.

Show Dates: Performances run until Oct. 9, 2009; Tickets: Box Office: 1 (800) 511-SHAW (7429)

Andrew Bunker   Camilla Koo   Graeme Somerville   Mary Haney   Michael Gianfrancesco

Benedict Campbell
Benedict Campbell

In Good King Charles's Golden Days Trailer Interviews Benedict Campbell

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