The National marks time pleasantly with a roisterous production of Shaw’s 1899 melodrama and at least restores to the Olivier stage some of the energy missing from it of late. If the play hardly seems worth such a fuss, it’s only because Shaw is relatively rarely done at this address; one yearns to see the same theater take on, say, “Man and Superman.”
Still, as directed with brio by Christopher Morahan against John Gunter’s scenic backdrop of a map of Revolutionary War New England, “Devil’s Disciple” will be a crowd pleaser. There’s no harm in that, particularly with as winning a central trio of performers as Richard Bonneville (Dick Dudgeon), Paul Jesson (Anthony Anderson) and Helen McCrory (his wife, Judith), all of whom barnstorm their way through a play that has not an ounce of depth or subtlety to it. The “devil’s disciple” of the title, Dudgeon is the family black sheep led mistakenly to the gallows in 1777 New Hampshire in place of the town pastor, Anderson.
Anderson’s wife gets the tremulous curtain line, “Richard must die,” but it’s not giving too much away to point out that unlike his uncle before him, Dudgeon will be reprieved. The steep aisles of the Olivier were made for the climax, and the thrust stage amply houses cheering townspeople and farcical British soldiers; the latter are drolly embodied by Daniel Massey, in an eyebrows-arched performance as Gen. Burgoyne, and Jeremy Sinden, whose jowly Maj. Swindon gets off one of Shaw’s best cracks about the law. (“Nothing remains to be done,” Swindon says in anticipation of Dudgeon’s hanging, “except to try him.”)
Some of the senior actors — Frances Cuka’s hammy Mrs. Dudgeon among them — could take a cue from the younger leads, who maintain their sincerity even when Shaw goes off the bombastic rail. A good actor relegated too long to character parts, Bonneville’s Dudgeon is all swaggering bravado, pausing to point out to the lovesick Judith the odd logic that he must be hanged if he is to be considered heroic. McCrory gives easily her best performance in this theater so far, her clenched conviction giving way to a degree of feeling that surprises even herself.
Jesson’s rebel minister makes an amusing transition from smug pontificator to man of action; one half expects him to abseil in for the finish. Shaw, meanwhile , does his own abseiling, descending from the lofty heights he normally occupies to write a tub-thumping script, which is, by the way, utterly democratic in its swipes at British and American mores. That didn’t keep Shaw from himself swiping a genre — Victorian melodrama — which he seems much too good for, but if you want to see “The Devil’s Disciple,” the National has pulled it off, all flags flying.