We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2011 season

A year ago we were wondering whether the Shaw Festival management might be chafing a little at having to build its seasons around the plays of Bernard Shaw. The 2009 season was all about Noël Coward, and the Festival’s marketing for 2010 certainly didn’t lead with the two Shaw plays that were on the bill. In fact, the first Shaw play of 2010 didn’t even open until the end of June.

Shaw

But if the Shaw Festival is thinking about putting Shaw on the backburner, it’s not happening in 2011, because for its 50th season there will be an unprecedented four Shaw plays at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Personally, we’re not tired of Shaw yet. Here’s what we think of the 2011 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. The Admirable Crichton (James M. Barrie). Several months ago, when we offered a few suggestions for future Shaw Festival seasons (see this post), a play by J. M. Barrie was high on the list. It wasn’t The Admirable Crichton, but we’ll settle for this inventive comedy, which we’ve read but never seen (the Shaw Festival put it on back 1976, when Emsworth was still a student, unaware of theater festivals in Ontario).

J M Barrie

James M. Barrie

Like several Shaw plays (including Candida, also on the 2011 playbill), The Admirable Crichton involves the clumsy efforts of “advanced” English folk to live up to their socialist ideals. In this play, the Earl of Loam makes it a monthly practice to hold a dinner in which his household’s servants are treated like equals. The idealistic earl explains to Crichton, the butler: “Can’t you see, Crichton, that our divisions into classes are artificial, that if we were to return to Nature, which is the aspiration of my life, all would be equal?” Crichton, a clear-sighted conservative, does not agree: “The divisions into classes, my lord, are not artificial. They are the natural outcomes of a civilised society.”

Fantasies become reality in many of Barrie’s plays.  In The Admirable Crichton, the Earl’s household, servants and all, take a long voyage together and find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted Pacific island, where the Earl’s egalitarian theories are put to the test. In Bernard Shaw’s My Fair Lady (also on the 2011 playbill), a poor flower girl is taken out of her station life and transformed into a jewel of society; in Barrie’s play a butler is changed into a master, and a lord finds a station in life fitting his own natural ability.  Stephen Sutcliffe will play the butler, Crichton, and David Schurman will be the Earl of Loam.

2. My Fair Lady (Bernard Shaw, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe). We can’t imagine why they’ve never put on My Fair Lady at Niagara-on-the-Lake till now. Sure, it’s just an “adaptation” of Shaw’s play Pygmalion, but it uses a high percentage of Shaw’s original lines and sticks to the story. There was no good reason for the Shaw Festival to snub My Fair Lady for 49 years.

P. G. Wodehouse must have been suffering from indigestion, or gout, or kidney stones when he saw this show in the 1950s and told a friend it was “the dullest lousiest show” he’d ever seen.  This is our favorite musical play, if Showboat isn’t. We love its songs and have sung and played them all our life: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church On Time.” Deborah Hay, who so successfully played another girl from the slums a couple of years ago in Born Yesterday, will play Eliza Doolittle.  We particularly look forward to Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins.  Little round man Neil Barclay, who is in fact an excellent song-and-dance man, will be Alfred Doolittle.

3. Candida (Bernard Shaw). This never-tedious comedy is among our favorite Shaw plays. Candida is the wife of James Morelle, a vicar and popular socialist speaker who serves a run-down parish in London. In the fundamentalist circles of Emsworth’s younger years, one sometimes heard of preachers who were “so heavenly minded” that they were “of no earthly good.” Morelle is the liberal analogue, so zealous for his causes that he doesn’t pay enough attention to the living, breathing people in his own circle, especially his wife. We give the radical socialist Shaw credit for being able to satirize someone like Morelle, a soldier on the front lines of the socialist campaign.

The plot of Candida revolves around the infatuation of young Eugene Marchbanks for Candida, who is 15 years his senior. In other productions of Candida that we’ve seen, Candida is portrayed as genuinely wavering between the young poet and her husband. This has never seemed right to us; we don’t think Candida ever seriously considers leaving James for the boy, and we don’t think the dramatic interest of the play requires it.

Gina Wilkinson was originally scheduled to direct Candida; sadly, she passed away in December 2010. Claire Jullien will play Candida.

4. Drama at Inish (Lennox Robinson). Several years ago we got a charge out of the Shaw Festival’s production of Seán O’Casey’s 1926 play The Plough and the Stars, even though we had trouble understanding the heavy Irish accents. Irish drama was something new for us, and we liked it.

We’ve been expecting more O’Casey but instead, in 2011, we’ll be getting a 1933 drama called Drama at Inish from one of O’Casey’s Irish contemporaries, Lennox Robinson. We dug around and found a copy of this comedy on-line and were greatly entertained by our reading of it. Jackie Maxwell herself, who we think is the best director at the Shaw Festival, will be directing. Two of our favorite Shaw Festival actresses, Mary Haney and Corrine Koslo, will have leading roles.

This is a play about actors and their audiences. Perhaps you remember a story — it might have been Mark Twain, maybe Bret Harte — in which some cowboys seeing their first play didn’t understand that the drama on stage wasn’t real, so they pulled out their pistols to shoot the stage villain. Drama at Inish similarly pokes fun at small-town theater-goers who confuse the real world and the gloomy on-stage worlds of Ibsen and Chekhov. (When this play initially came to Broadway, it was called “Is Life Worth Living.”)  

5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams). This 1955 play is high on our list of all-time favorite plays. It will be only the second Tennessee Williams play to appear at the Shaw Festival (we enjoyed Summer and Smoke in 2007) and hope A Streetcar Named Desire won’t be far behind. We note, in passing, that, 10 years ago, before they relaxed “the Mandate,” the Shaw Festival probably wouldn’t have offered a play written after Shaw’s death in 1950.

This is the story of Brick and Maggie, a young couple whose childlessness is a sore point with Brick’s father, Big Daddy, a wealthy, domineering Southern planter who is dying of cancer. Maggie’s childless condition is due mainly to Brick’s puzzling lack of interest in his wife; does Brick simply despise her, or is he (like Tennessee Williams himself) simply not attracted to women?

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is full of delicious, unforgettable scenes and characters.  Moya O’Connell will play Maggie the Cat; Jim Mezon will play Big Daddy.  It seems that this will be Mr. Mezon’s only major role at the Shaw Festival in 2011; we’re a little disappointed that in the Festival’s 50th year, he’s not playing a lead role in a Bernard Shaw play. 

6. The President (Ferenc Molnár). This one-act comedy, starring Lorne Kennedy, was such a success as the one-hour lunchtime show at the Shaw Festival in 2008 that they’re bringing it back. We meant to see it then, but it never worked out, so we’re glad for this second chance.  This play too involves a “make-over”; a cabdriver with communist leanings must become someone suitable as the husband for the daughter of a soybean tycoon. Presumably most of the same cast will be back, although Chilina Kennedy, who played the daughter in 2008, is now a leading lady at the Stratford Festival. At $32, it’s a bargain.

The plot of The President, originally written in Hungarian in 1929, is thoroughly Wodehousian, and in fact there’s a connection: P. G. Wodehouse adapted one of Ferenc Molnár’s plays into the 1926-27 Broadway smash The Play’s the Thing, which we intend to re-read before heading off to see The President.

7. Topdog/Underdog (Suzan-Lori Parks). This 2001 play by Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer. It’s about two brothers (black men, but they actually are brothers) and their struggles to get by. They’re the only two characters in the play, which will play for only a short run (from July 19 through August 27) in the Shaw Festival’s new Studio Theater, which they reserve for “contemporary” plays. The Shaw’s track record in this space (John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 2009, Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money in 2010) is very good.

8. Heartbreak House (George Bernard Shaw). It’s one of Shaw’s greatest plays, according to all the experts, and who are we to argue? It includes some of our favorite Shaw characters, like old Captain Shotover, who treats his country house as if it were a sailing ship and pretends to be more senile than he really is. We consider the Captain a role model for our own declining years and are delighted to see that Michael Ball will take the role.  In fact, this show will have the Shaw Festival’s “A” case, with Robin Evan Willis, Deborah Hay, Patrick Galligan, and Patrick McManus as key cast members.

The first half of Heartbreak House, written during the first World War, is witty and entertaining; the second half turns deadly serious, and it’s all intensely metaphorical. In fact, we would go so far as to suggest that Shaw’s reputation for being “talky” owes more to Heartbreak House than to any other of his plays. Toward the end, the characters simply sit around the terrace engaged in intellectual duels that make you, in the audience, feel stupid because you didn’t understand someone’s winning thrust.

9. Maria Severa (Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli) Ever longer grows the list of recent Broadway musicals (like Spring Awaking, Billy Elliott, and In the Heights) that we have not seen and, frankly, don’t feel the urge to see. So will we make it a priority to see this brand-new musical by two talented members of the Shaw Festival company (Jay Turvey and Jay Sportelli)?

The play is about Maria Severa, a historical character who, in her short life (1820-1846), became a legendary Portugese singer of fado songs.  Julie Martell, who is both easy on the eyes and an excellent singer, will play the title role.

10. When the Rain Stops Falling (Andrew Bovell). We don’t know about this one. Here’s what Ben Brantley said in a review of a London production of this Australian play in the New York Times last summer:

The play begins with people hidden by umbrellas walking in circles under sheets of water, until a man in the center of the stage is compelled to scream a scream of human angst. Then a fish falls into his arms.

11. On the Rocks (George Bernard Shaw). Besides three of Shaw’s best-known plays, the 2010 season will include one of his least-known — or, at least, an adaptation of it. We were altogether unfamiliar with this late (1933) Shaw play till we saw it was going to be offered in 2011, so we read it.  We can now explain (a) why, in 50 years, this is only the second time the Shaw Festival has put on On the Rocks and (b) why it needed to be “adapted”.

Interviewed at the age of 92, P. G. Wodehouse stated, “I don’t want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn’t stop writing.”  Shaw may not have been in his nineties when he wrote On the Rocks, but it’s the sort of thing Wodehouse was talking about.  As Shaw wrote it, On the Rocks is a tedious play about a conservative English prime minister and his cabinet who, in a time of national crisis that has brought the nation close to anarchy, suddenly “realize” that various collectivist measures are what is needed to save the country. It’s the equivalent of a radical socialist’s wet dream. The characters, on the page anyway, are wooden and featureless. No doubt the adaptation, by Michael Healey, will be more interesting than if we were given Shaw’s play straight, but we’re not attracted.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I should love to have a copy of this article.


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