Reviewed by James Karas
The share price of George Bernard Shaw who has a festival that bears his name in Niagara-on the-Lake seems to have plummeted. In the beginning (1962), there was nothing but Shaw at the Shaw Festival. In 1965, Sean O’Casey squeezed in with one play and in 1967, Somerset Maugham sneaked in one of his works. In 2013, poor Shaw gets a mere one and a half of his plays produced. Major Barbara is the one and an adaptation of his Geneva by John Murrell as Peace In Our Time is the half. In other words, Shaw went from 100% to 15% of the take. Now you know how the shareholders of Research in Motion must feel.
The good news is that the production of Major Barbara directed by Jackie Maxwell, the Festival’s Artistic Director, is excellent.
Much credit goes to Nicole Underhay in the title role. Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army in early twentieth century London and she is passionate about saving people’s souls. Most people need nourishment for their stomach and she therefore has an uphill battle. She is also the daughter of a wealthy gun and powder maker or the business of weapons for killing people and not saving souls. Underhay gives us a Barbara who is attractive, spunky, committed and intelligent.
Her father, Andrew Undershaft (Benedict Campbell), is a powerful, seemingly unscrupulous capitalist who is interested in profit and has no qualms about manufacturing weapons of destruction. There is more to him than that, of course, and that is the whole point of the play. Campbell is excellent in the role; he can bluster, be dramatic and witty and deliver a fine performance. Shaw cannot turn off his verbosity in the final act and we are grateful for Campbell’s performance that carries the play to its conclusion.
The other central role in the play is that of Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek who falls in love with Barbara and in the end turns out to be Undershaft’s spiritual son. A red-haired Graeme Somerville as Cusins grows from an infatuated lover to a future industrialist and humanitarian in a fine performance.
The play moves from the library of Lady Britomart (Laurie Paton) where the upper crust Undershaft family gathers and we get good performances but bad accents from Ben Sanders, Wade Bogert-O’Brien and Ijeoma Emesowum. From there we go to the Salvation Army shelter where we get cockney accents and hungry looks.
We meet Peter Krantz, Billy Lake and Catherine McGregor as the down-and-outs who do very good work with much better lower class accents.
Maxwell gets high marks for her directing subject to a couple of comments. The play opens in the Undershaft library but Maxwell has decided to interpolate a short scene with Barbara. It may appear suitable but we do not need anyone to tamper with the play. What is the point?
Judith Bowden’s design merits comment. The shelter where the play opens in Maxwell’s tampered version of the play consists of a bare brick wall, an iron staircase and some exposed concrete. No complaints about it. Then we need to switch quickly to the Undershaft library and we have several gray panels lowered that are supposed to represent books. The exposed brick walls remain as well as some of the railings. This is just plain ugly.
The set for the scene at the Undershaft factory is a variation on the above and it is acceptable.
Major Barbara has a lot of words and you need actors who can deliver them properly over the almost three hours that the performance lasts. This production succeeds in that regard and provides a good night at the theatre.
Major Barbara by Bernard Shaw runs in repertory from May 2 until October 19, 2013 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.