The sorry state of politics - Shaw's On the Rocks
On the Rocks is Jackie Maxwell's "first of a series where contemporary writers will give us their singular take on some of Shaw's less performed plays" and first at bat is "one of Canada's finest and funniest political playwrights, Michael Healey. Michael's original plays include Courageous - which won the Dora award for Best New Play in 2010 - Generous, The Drawer Boy and Plan B. We gave Michael no restrictions or directions and he has retained much of the original storyline. The setting remains, the year is still 1933, but the play has been re-ordered and re-thought in a way which makes it accessible and contemporary and retains its Shavian spirit."
The play begins in the cabinet room of Number 10 Downing Street. Sir Arthur Chavender (Peter Krantz) the Prime Minister, has delivered a stirring speech the preceding night and has created political chaos. Sir Dexter Rightside (Steven Sutcliffe), Conservative leader in a coalition government with Chavender's Liberals, questions his opposite's sanity. As the unemployed masses on the street grow even more unruly, Krantz is transformed (thanks to his wife) from a man with no new ideas into one with too many. Family plays an important role chiefly in the second act in microcosmic fashion.
Sir Broadfoot Basham (Shaw likes to play with words), the Chief of Police (Thom Marriott) and the Home Secretary (Sutcliffe) arrive to speak to the PM. "I could have sworn," intones Marriott, a believable Scotland Yard principal, "that if there was a man in all of England that could be trusted to talk and say nothing, Arthur Chavender was that man. His entire career he could be counted on to thump the table, leaving an audience enthralled by his platitudes and utterly unmolested by ideas."
Apparently last night, there were no soothing words but proposed sweeping changes to almost every part of government and society. Basham is pleased because he gets a raise and more cops. Sir Bembrose Hotspot (Norman Browning) as naval chief is pleased because he gets more ships, but is change something people really believe in? And why exactly do they even vote?
Thanks to Healey, all vested interests enter the fray. Old money is carefully personified by the Duke of Domesday (David Schurmann) who complains bitterly about paying his modest income tax. New money is embodied convincingly by Dame Adhira Pandranath (Cherissa Richards) who complains about land owners desiring too much of her pie. The people are made flesh in the form of a delegation from The Isle of Cats: Mr. Hipney (Guy Bannerman) who represents the cynical truth of "democracy" (that is, there is none), Toffy, the Earl of Barking (Martin Happer) an aristocrat disguised as a revolutionary, Miss Aloysia Brollikins (Marla McLean) a feisty local politician aiming to rise in the ranks and Tom Humphies, the Mayor (Anthony Bekken) who sees no point in argument because of Krantz's ability to talk in circles. Indeed, his proposed speech to the Archbishop dictated to his secretary, Miss Hilda Hanways (Mary Haney), is hilarious work by the Krantz-Haney duo.
Healey projects into the future. Assembled before us, we perceive Democrat Obama versus Republican Boehner, Steven Harper's manipulation of Parliament through Orders in Council and proroguing, Toronto's G-20 riot, Vancouver's Stanley Cup insurrection and much more. Healey says, "Shaw's play is about the politics of its period and place. But it's also about politicians and the people that elect them. My adaptation shifts the play away from Shaw's hopes for his society, and asks questions about what all of us want from our leaders. My goal is to retain Shaw's wit, love of complexity and affection for human failings, while making a new play that confronts our own addiction for choosing leaders that tell us what we want to hear." (Shades of the upcoming Hudak versus McGuinty provincial election wherein pollsters will advise the politicians precisely what to say and not necessarily what they think.)
Apparently, we fear change, preferring the pain of the devil that we know as opposed to what Bannerman's Hipney wisely if not cynically suggests, that really, it's all just one big shot in the dark. Nobody has a clue, and if this reminds you of current world economic insecurity, Shaw has hit the mark.
To force matters, Lady Chavender, the PM's wife, (Catherine McGregor) employs her doctor (Claire Julien) to challenge Krantz, the PM, to take a two-week respite in order to learn how to think. Accordingly, he finally understands the political process, its short shelf-life and his inauthentic existence that's mirrored by his family and children, Flavia (Maggie Blake) and David (Ben Sanders).
Did the experiment work? Healey certainly makes the play accessible to a modern audience, but Shaw's tedious nature frequently surfaces. At the conclusion, we are sadly reminded of Churchill's lament: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." On the Rocks is not optimistic; however, it's a play worth watching - for political epiphanies that might emerge.
Running time: approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. The play is directed by Joseph Ziegler and runs June 14 to October 8 at the Court House Theatre.