Perhaps “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” but she sizzled on opening night at the Shaw Festival in a high-spirited and thoroughly enjoyable production directed by fest boss Christopher Newton. It’ll be a while yet before all the actors find their perfect pace, but there’s plenty of depth to what they’ve achieved so far, and the results showcase Newton’s affinity with, and affection for, this complex text — the first verse play to be staged in the Shaw’s 37-year history.
Resembling in form Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies, set in Elizabethan times and grappling with serious social issues beneath its bubbly exterior, “Lady” presents a number of challenges, not the least among them finding a balance between the lilt of verse-speaking and the pragmatism of its approach to characterization.
For example, accused witch Jennet (Ann Baggley) has pretty words to condemn the mindlessness of her tormentors, while cynical Thomas (Simon Bradbury), who begs to be hanged, has fanciful flights to describe his utter contempt at the state of the world. Both meet the job head-on, although Bradbury has found a fuller range of expression than Baggley.
And in what is turning out to be a season to celebrate veteran actors, four old-timers turn in exquisite portraits: Roger Rowland is a delightful curmudgeon as the town mayor, Sandy Webster is his amusing sidekick as the justice and Barry McGregor has hilarious moments as the muddle-headed chaplain.
But it’s Tony van Bridge, the dean of the festival acting company, who is now in his 80s, who delivers the evening’s greatest moment of comedy as Matthew Skipps, the local rag ‘n’ bones man who was supposed to have been murdered by Jennet, but turns up very much alive and drunk. His small scene is notable not only for its brilliant comic timing, but also for its assurance with the language.
Other performance gems abound — notably Patricia Hamilton and her son, Ben Carlson, in their first onstage appearance together — but the tip of the hat must go to Newton, who has proved once again that difficult plays can be lively and au courant in the right hands.