Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Heartbreak House - Shaw's ship of fools

Director Christopher Newton The Shaw Festival's Heartbreak House is not an easy play to digest, but it's worth the challenge. Everything appears Tempest-tossed, upside down, the characters inauthentic, the actual house built in the form of a ship, a hollow vessel, perhaps the Titanic, clearly adrift (as was England at the time before WWI), and as it flounders, it embodies an inscription written in large letters across the top of the set: "Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone" borrowed from Wordsworth's Prelude.

One of the great Romantic poets, Wordsworth wrote the Prelude as an autobiographical and philosophical poem when he was only 28, but worked at it during his long life without publishing it. Three months after his death in 1850, its name was assigned by his widow, Mary. A major concern for Wordsworth was the loss of the "visionary gleam" of youth, that which was pure and imaginative as age gradually dampens and eventually drowns creativity.

Prior to the play, I serendipitously attended a concert by Supertramp, a British rock band formed in 1969, marked by the use of spiritual and philosophical lyrics that lend themselves well to Shaw's play. In fact, Dreamer's lyrics fit perfectly: Take a dream on a Sunday/Take a life, take a holiday/Take a lie, take a dreamer/dream, dream, dream, dream, dream along...and so the cast does exist a dream world, some approximating life at the end thanks to the palpable fear of death as a German airship drops its bombs.

Leslie Frankish has designed a terrific nautical set, the ribs of the ship curving upwards and imprisoning the cast as the entire contraption heaves and buckles its troubled souls, trapped in their own turbulent voyages. Kevin Lamotte's lighting and Fred Gabresk's sound help magnify the illusion.

Deborah Hay and Blair Williams  a David Cooper Photo Deborah Hay and Robin Evan Willis a David Cooper photo Michael Ball  a David Cooper photo Michael Ball, Robin Evan Willis and Deborah Hay  a David Cooper photo Michael Ball, Robin Evan Willis and Patricia Hamilton a  David Cooper photo

The play centres on a family gathering in Sussex at Captain Shotover's house. Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis) has been invited to stay by Hesione Hushabye (Deborah Hay), the captain's daughter. The maid (Patricia Hamilton) warns Ellie, "This house is full of surprises for them that don't know our ways." Captain Shotover (Michael Ball) enters and immediately asks Ellie, upon hearing her last name, if she is the daughter of a former shipmate who robbed him. More of the family arrives - the captain's other daughter, Ariadne (Laurie Patton), Ellie's father Mazzini Dunn (Patrick McManus) and Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell), Mazzini's boss and Ellie's intended husband.

Hesione bluntly tells her sister: "She (Ellie) is going to marry a perfect hog of a millionaire for the sake of her father, who is as poor as a church mouse; and you must help me to stop her." Ellie admits to a secret romance with a dashing stranger, only to realize that he is Hesione's husband, Hector (Blair Williams). Ellie then rejects love and insists on proceeding with her marriage to Mangan saying, "If I can't have love, that's no reason why I should have poverty."

Robin Evan Willis and Benedict Campbell a David Cooper photo Robin Evan Willis and Deborah Hay a David Cooper photo Robin Evan Willis The burglar scene a David Cooper photo The cast of Heartbreak House  a Michael Cooper photo

Michael Ball as Shotover enjoys his first meaty role since Rutherford and Son. An octogenarian curmudgeon, he invents, collects dynamite, says what he thinks, and at the end, enjoys the last laugh for his spiritual strength amongst a malicious crew which takes perverse delight in exposing each other's faults while remaining oblivious to their own. Deborah Hay as Hesione, adeptly plays a trickster like Shakespeare's Prospero, embroiled in psychological games that become increasingly dark and dangerous. Laurie Paton, sister Ariadne, openly cheats on her husband with Patrick Galligan as Randall Utterword and then psychologically castrates him amidst the others. Robin Evan Willis as Ellie is the centre of the action, willing to accept a loveless marriage while forcefully lecturing others on their shallow lives. Blair Williams as Hector, Hesione's husband, is condemned by his good looks to accept surface vanity over the truth, and all of the men including Benedict Campbell as tycoon, Boss Mangan, sulk and cry when their cage is rattled. Ball as Shotover pursues the Zen-like "seventh degree of consciousness" throughout the play until Ellie identifies it finally as rum. "I drink to stay sober," he laments.

Shaw has depicted pre-WWI English society that teeters on the brink, unaware of the potential cost. In a New York Times review, Charles Isherwood wrote of the play, "Shaw indicted a culture saturated in false values, its most privileged citizens corrupted by idleness and indifference, content to drift toward the abyss." Heartbreak House is considered one of Shaw's best works - Shaw himself called it his King Lear, and playwright David Hare (Stuff Happens, Plenty, The Power of Yes) said of this play, "Heartbreak House remains not just, alongside Pygmalion, Shaw's most likeable and profound play, but also a work which has extraordinary historic importance."

It's long, almost three hours; there are two intermissions, and although the first and third act move quickly, the middle act drags. Director Christopher Newton directs this play for a second time at the Shaw Festival; the first in 1985.

I enjoyed it. The cast is exceptionally strong, no weakness in sight. Even the burglar in the final act, William Vickers as William Dunn, is remarkable with his allotted time, portraying a thief who deliberately gets caught in order to coerce a payment from the privileged class rather than they endure the ordeal of pressing charges. Galligan and Campbell, normally strong and masculine, burst like balloons too full of air. Patton, Hay and Willis, seemingly Lear's three daughters, might easily play for the nasty Boston Bruins, each a powerful dispenser of will. McManus, Ball and Williams consistently capture and reward our attention.

Heartbreak House plays at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, to Oct. 7. Tickets: 905-468-2172 or see

Copyright © ~ What Travel Writers Say ~ All Rights Reserved.
Contact WTWS