(June 6, 2008) Performances of George Bernard Shaw don’t get much sharper than the Shaw Festival‘s 2008 production of the comedy Getting Married. This show kept an embarrassing grin on my face for more than two solid hours, the first time something like that has happened since last year’s The Philanderer. Only a repertory ensemble whose members have spent as much time with each other and with Shaw as these have, could do a show like this so well.
These actors understand Shaw’s wit and the rhythm of his cadences, and they deliver his lines so easily and with such timing that we hardly notice that Shaw’s comedy is a vehicle for radical ideas about marriage with which we most certainly do not agree (for instance, the idea that polyandry or marriage for an agreed term of years should be allowed). This production goes down so pleasantly that we hardly notice that, in this hundred-year-old play, Shaw was attacking laws concerning marriage (restrictions on divorce, financial responsibility of husbands for their wives’ torts, and so on) that are now mere historical curiosities. These laws were changed long before most of us were born.
Getting Married is the story of a wedding day that doesn’t come off as planned. Instead of putting on their wedding finery and appearing at the church, the young bride and groom are having second thoughts — not about each other, but about whether marriage carries too many risks, legal and social. Meanwhile, their friends and relatives, some single, some married, some trying to become unmarried, are experiencing their own hilarious crises.
Those who might tend to avoid a Bernard Shaw play because of the long, preachy speeches that slow down many of his plays should know that Getting Married has much less of this than usual. Getting Married was written only a year or two before his best-known play, Pygmalion, and has much the same lively spirit as that comedy.
Getting Married doesn’t really have a lead role. But the Shaw’s cast includes so many practiced scene-stealers that a lead is not missed. Chief among the culprits here are Michael Ball as the philosophical greengrocer Collins, on whom all the characters rely for everything (Alfred Doolittle, in Pygmalion, is undoubtedly a relative of Collins’s), Laurie Paton as the masterful, impossible Mrs. George, and the wonderful Norman Browning, who plays the same harrumphing lovable grouch that he always plays, and to the usual crowd-pleasing effect. Sharry Flett, as the gracious Bishop’s wife, is pitch-perfect. It has seemed to me that there have been fewer meaty roles lately for Michael Ball, my favorite actor at the Shaw, so it was good to see him in top form in Getting Married.
All in all, this show succeeds because of exceptional ensemble work. The real star of Getting Married is the director, Joseph Ziegler, who set the actors on a fine brisk pace. Seated toward the front of the Royal George Theater, I enjoyed the “stereo” effect Ziegler achieved several times by positioning the actors so that rapid-fire lines from a half-dozen actors flew counter-clockwise around the stage.
I hope the problems that the inimitable David Schurmann was having with his voice the day we saw the show have been resolved. Fortunately, they didn’t detract from his performance.
The only jarring notes came during the bows, when a version of the sixties girl-group hit “Chapel of Love” came blaring out through the p.a. system and knocked the grin off my face.
The first time I experienced this sort of outrage was at the end of the Stratford Festival’s Troilus and Cressida about five years ago. As darkness fell at the end of that earthy and revelatory production, we were assaulted with the Nine Inch Nails tune “Closer,” with its immortal lyric, “I want to f*** you like an animal.” I understand that the Stratford’s new artistic director Des McAnuff has done the same thing at the end of this year’s Romeo and Juliet using the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
Enough already, I say. A great play transports us to other times and places. After the curtain falls, I’m in no hurry to be yanked back to 2008. Even less do I want to be dropped off rudely in the sixties. Directors should let us depart in peace.
See Emsworth’s reviews of other shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including An Inspector Calls, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, and the classic American musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein, Wonderful Town. Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance is reviewed in this post.
Emsworth reviews the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of Hamlet in this post.