No matter where you stand with regard to current geo-political terrorism, the cry “Dare you make war on war?” hits home as timely. Which is pretty impressive for a line written in 1905 for the climactic confrontation in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” Nicholas Hytner’s revival gives serious punch to this typically dialectical play, but his casting underlines an imbalance in the writing. More than ever, this revival makes it seem the play has the wrong title.
Going from Salvation Army major to the potential wife of a munitions factory owner, Barbara (Hayley Atwell) undergoes a major change during the play. Yet, with so much depending upon the machinations of her father, it ought to bear his name: Andrew Undershaft. And that’s even without the smart casting of Simon Russell Beale.
Before he arrives halfway through the briskly played Wildean comedy of the opening scene, Undershaft’s being talked about by Lady Britomart — mother to his estranged family — a dragon in a dress played by Clare Higgins at her most gloriously imperious. And from the moment he appears, it’s clear this unrepentant arms-dealer is a stranger to self-doubt.
That self-certainty, he realizes, is a quality he shares with his eldest daughter Barbara. To test her, he offers to visit her shelter if she’ll then come to his “cannon works.” It’s in the first of these two trials that the production begins to falter.
Tom Pye’s downstage drawing-room set trucks back to reveal rows of empty tables and benches in the almost stygian gloom of a bald, gray army shelter. It looks Dickensian, but without feverish detail or fiercer light to animate the vast Olivier space, the action among the poor feels alternately inert and forced.
This is Barbara’s home turf, but Atwell sounds strained. It’s as if she’s constantly trying unsuccessfully to prove her point, which means the character lacks the necessary weight. Not only does that rob the scene of its power, it makes her father’s routing of her a dramatically limp foregone conclusion.
But the battle becomes excitingly tense thanks to to Paul Ready’s Adolphus. Ready has cornered the market in fey, petulant victims so it’s a pleasure to see him adding surprising steel to a character who grows in stature throughout the play. By the fierce moral debates of the final scene, he is an exhilarating match for Russell Beale.
Backed by Pye’s highly effective, ominous ranks of missiles, the moral wrangling of the final scene is lent a literal life-and-death dimension. Shaw’s questions (Does it matter if poverty and need are cured by the profits of war-mongering? Can war be a force for good? Are governments or arms dealers in control?) are charged up by Adolphus’ convincing dilemma: Should he agree to inherit Undershaft’s factory, thereby dropping pacifism for the sake of power?
Comic cameos along the way lend spirit to Vicki Mortimer’s understatedly well-dressed proceedings. Snooty John Heffernan as Stephen Undershaft doesn’t so much wear his four-buttoned, Edwardian suit as stand around pompously as if held up by it. Tom Andrews as Charles Lomax wins laughs by leading pompously with what looks like a non-existent chin.
The coda with Barbara, however, falls flat, meaning the evening doesn’t so much climax as run out of steam. But despite the production’s unevenness, Russell Beale’s effortless command coupled with Shaw’s alarmingly topical debate keep the play watchable.