There are three things you can always count on in a Neil Munro production: a strong point of view, a well-defined look and an element of risk in the staging, all of which demands that an audience hitch on to the concept as it speeds by or be left by the roadside wondering what happened. In Harley Granville Barker’s “The Madras House” this translates into a production that is both stylish and stylized, the former lending grace and a tonal fluidity, the latter occasionally verging on the self-consciously precious.
Munro has mostly harnessed the plot of this tricky and fascinating play as it gallops off in several directions, seemingly at odds with itself as the action shifts focus from family drama to Shavian dialectic (Shaw wrote “Misalliance” as a companion piece to “Madras House”). Look closely, though, and there is a clear central theme that rests with the story of Philip Madras, a fashion house owner who opts to sell his absentee father’s business and turn to the less exploitative (so he thinks) arena of politics.
Philip may view himself as a reformer, but he is also a product of a marriage that taught him to “dislike men and despise women” and he is driven to unravel the mysteries of the opposite sex by talking to them “man to man.” His successes and failures form some of the play’s most interesting exchanges and highlight this surprisingly sensitive text about the actual price of early women’s liberation — freedom meant being at liberty to slave in factories for starvation wages, being separated from husbands and forced to pretend a spinsterhood because “live-in” wages were higher, or being dismissed for “getting into trouble.”
Despite the production’s high emotional tone and occasional excesses, Munro manages to stay firmly fixed on these central concerns, while Blair Williams as Philip lends depth to a protagonist who responds to the play’s action rather than sparking it. Also strong are Ben Carlson as a reluctant libertine in the making, Laurie Paton as the priggish Miss Chancellor, George Dawson as the fey Mr. Windlesham and Peter Millard as a Baptist of Jewish descent who ends up converting to Islam.
Among Munro’s inventive touches: a stenographer’s chair center-stage in act one on which matriarch Katherine Huxtable perches and swivels as she controls her family and interrogates visitors; long silences that punctuate frenetic and often over-lapping dialogue; a spectacular set of mirrored, swinging doors by Peter Hartwell that form the backdrop of the set; a recorded reading by Munro himself of the lengthy character introductions and room descriptions; and disciplined ensemble work that parts like the Red Sea to let speeches and moments take effect.
Things that don’t work: an overwrought performance by Lynne Cormack as Mrs. Brigstock that breaks the mold of the Shaw’s normally carefully crafted work; moments in which the actors seemed to be following Munro’s directorial flourishes rather than the text; and a number of carefully staged tableaux that are gorgeous to look at but seem an end in themselves rather than a conduit for the action.
But then there aren’t any precedents this side of the big pond, where this 1910 play (here staged in a mix of two versions, including a revised 1925 one) is having its North American premiere. It is also the sixth Granville Barker play staged by the Shaw, all under Munro’s direction, which means that whatever else one can say about this particular interpretation, it is based on experience and a solid level of comfort with the playwright.
In fact, Munro’s ease with this dramaturgically complex work lends him the confidence to experiment, and overall he navigates smoothly through the many changes in tone and lack of traditional narrative, giving full rein to the play’s ideas and issues.