The Salvation Army marched down main street Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Festival Theater, and officers handed out literature to nattily garbed first-nighters, but for all that Helena Kaut-Howson’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” was only just saved — by an experienced Shaw Festival company of veterans who know how to lift dense dialogue off a page.
That it was the cast who rescued this flagship production became clear as fest newcomers Joel Hechter (Stephen Undershaft) and Colm Magner (Bill Walker) struggled to find their footing, while younger company members fought for balance. All of which makes this “Barbara” a fascinating case study of the skills needed to drive Shaw’s work.
Kaut-Howson is a British director and part of fest boss Christopher Newton’s ongoing experiment in teaming up his Canadian company with international directors. In this case the marriage seems to have hit the rocks artistically.
This is also one of Shaw’s most brilliant and enduring plays. Seen today against the economic landscape of neo-Conservatism and the rising power of the global marketplace, it’s clear how little the world has changed since 1905. In fact, the content of many of the speeches, in particular those by arms dealer Andrew Undershaft (played with a pleasing, off-hand self-confidence by Jim Mezon) is downright chilling.
“I am the government … you will do what pays us. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn’t. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need.”
And when he gives the Salvation Army $ 50,000 anonymously, not out of altruistic reasons but because he might be inundated with other requests for charitable donations if he takes credit, the audience erupted in knowing laughter and applause.
The reactions were fascinating, because in some ways this is the most revolutionary play Shaw wrote and certainly it is the most devoutly Marxist (although Shaw was not a Marxist); scholars have pegged his frustrations with the Fabian Society, a middle-class organization that preached armchair revolution, as the backbone to the play.
In “Major Barbara” he attacks the strategical muddiness of the intellectual left, names poverty as the only “real” social crime and calls for armed revolt by the working classes as the solution. Even Undershaft, whose personal philosophy is decidedly right-wing, is really an East Ender gone off the rails with the acquisition of wealth, rather than a member of the privileged classes. It is easy, therefore, to forgive him his trespasses and relate to his reasoning.
All of this, ultimately, makes a great play and a palatable production. Shaw’s talent for raising more questions than he answers — even as he pronounces “truths” in dogmatic fashion — is a rare intellectual and theatrical gift. The actors who understand this and make that contradiction work for them are the ones who succeed in giving life to this “Barbara.”