“What does govern England?” barks Andrew Undershaft (Peter Bowles) during the great final act of George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play, and the shining virtue of Peter Hall’s new revival — amazingly, this director’s first-ever Shaw production — is that the question rings out no less forcefully today.
“Major Barbara” is a rich play, but also a peculiar one, made up in equal measures of drawing room comedy, philosophical debate and a tale of salvationism that wouldn’t embarrass “Guys and Dolls.” At its heart, however, is a struggle for the soul of a nation that pits money against character and dares to give Mammon the (ostensible) upper hand. Until, that is, the firebrand that is Barbara (Jemma Redgrave) herself concludes that “life is all one”: Neither saintliness nor sinfulness rules to the exclusivity of the other.
That’s certainly brought home by a mostly terrific cast, among whom only Redgrave seems insufficiently impassioned for the moral fervor she conveys genially but without dazzle. Elsewhere, it’s as if the lasting crackle of Shaw in full rhetorical swing has enlivened a company whose longest-standing members do some of their best work here.
Bowles has been appearing steadily in Hall’s various West End seasons, acting Rattigan and Moliere (among others) over the last few years, and his fierce Undershaft will come as a revelation to those used to the same actor’s traditionally dapper, if slightly distant, situation-comedy demeanor.
It’s possible to see in Bowles’ boastful millionaire arms dealer a loftier antecedent of the charismatically Thatcherite Tom in David Hare’s “Skylight”: This Undershaft sounds every bit the late 20th-century English entrepreneur claiming that mastery depends upon power and money.
Self-made and self-created, he strides through his munitions arsenal announcing that he will not be stopped by anything but “a bullet.” And yet, even as he is winning over to his side the bespectacled classics scholar, Cusins (David Yelland), on whom Barbara has her eye, Hall cunningly reminds us of the limitations of Shaw’s acceptance of violence in a play written — let us not forget — before either of this century’s world wars. (It’s at that moment that John Gunter’s set, chillingly abstracted out of its well-heeled locales for the final scene, comes thunderingly into its own.)
There couldn’t be a less politically correct character, either, than an Undershaft who won’t allow poverty to act as a pinprick to conscience. But the unfortunate (if timely) truth is that society now — as then — is rife with Undershafts.
The production, happily, isn’t a one-man (or woman) show. Yelland has never been better as the initially unwitting acolyte, an older Trofimov who trades in Chekhov’s idea of revolution for something far more vigilant. (It’s one of the points of Chekhov that his revolutionaries generally fail to act.) Arguing that “no cannon will go off by itself,” he, too, looks forward to a modern play — in this case, Michael Frayn’s current “Copenhagen,” and its belief that the artillery of war per se is less alarming than the people brought in to deploy it. Cusins’ aim is to arm his beloved “common man,” though again one only has to reflect back over this century to witness how such impulses can easily go awry.
Raising the comic quotient of an evening that rarely gets bogged down by rhetoric is Lady Britomart Undershaft, played by Anna Carteret with an impregnable coiffure and a no less unerring command. Her struggle is for the future of her stiff-backed Cambridge-educated son, Stephen (Crispin Bonham-Carter), against a father who takes as much pleasure in his lack of education as he does turning murder into gain.
Where does all this leave Barbara? Forsaken by her God, she makes clear, as she searches for a “spiritual power” to rival the materialist one that her father so pridefully displays. She’s left to decide — as is the audience — whether it’s better to be wrong about the ways of life but true to yourself or truthful but wrongheaded, and it’s a measure of the production that Barbara’s major dilemma haunts us still.