28 February 2008

Major Barbara - National Theatre, Wednesday 27th February 2008


LadyUndershaft is discussing with her son, Stephen, some permanent source of income for her grown daughters - Sarah, who is engaged to Charles Lomax, and Barbara (a Major in the Salvation Army), who is engaged to Adolphus Cusins. She comes to the conclusion that the only solution to the problem is to take monetary help from her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, who has made millions of pounds from his munitions factory. According to tradition, the heir to the Undershaft fortune must be an orphan who can be groomed to run the factory. Undershaft himself had been a poor young man; he improved himself by working hard, and wants to give another young man the same kind of opportunity. Lady Undershaft has managed to raise the children by herself. Stephen, Sarah, and Barbara are reintroduced to their father.

A deal is made between Barbara and Undershaft to visit each other's place of work. He meets Barbara at her shelter the following morning, and is impressed with her abilities as she handles various people with patience, firmness, and sincerity. Undershaft decides that if anyone in his family is capable of managing his business, it is his idealistic and committed daughter.

Undershaft brings Barbara back to reality by revealing the darker side of The Salvation Army when he gives a sizable donation, which she wants to refuse because the source was weaponry; however, it is eagerly accepted by the officer in charge of the shelter. Disillusioned, Major Barbara leaves the shelter in tears. She visits the factory with her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, also a member of The Salvation Army and a
professor of Greek, who joined The Salvation Army only because he was in love with Barbara. He is soon made the heir and head of the Undershaft Munitions Foundry, because he is - technically - a foundling; his father having married his dead wife's sister (which is not recognised legally as a marriage).

Barbara intends to resign from the Salvation Army having seen what she views as their hypocrisy but changes her mind and tells Cusins that she will die a salvationist After she marries him, she plans for them to live in the countryside near the munitions factory, where she will continue her work and bring her message of salvation to the factory workers instead of just to people who are poor and starving.

Simon Russell Beale, Simon Russell Beale..... all I ever see these days at the theatre is Simon Russell Bloody Beale...

By Gum, Shaw was a provocative little bugger, canny old Socialist that he was. This play is basically on the theme that "good things can come from Capitalism" and that "tainted money is as good as pure when you really need it" and, surprisingly, having seen this play, I find myself in agreement with him - especially after thinking it would end with Barbara's complete disillusionment with her beloved cause and her beloved fiance, only to find that it actually ends with her realisation that she can use both fiance and the "dirty money" in pursuance of her own ideals.

This was a reasonably "trad" production, with the Undershaft family home nicely contrasting with the run-down grubbiness of the Salvation Army centre. There was, however, to my mind just that little bit too much Edwardian clutter on stage in the first scene, and some of the plants were very badly placed, almost crowding out the Grandfather clock. The centre, conversely, was extremely grim, although the many hanging lampshades did look rather too modern for the period. Perhaps the National were reusing some of them from the awful "Women of Troy" from last year. The Munitions Factory was stark and sleek, although I wasnt really that keen on the rows and rows and rows of bombs everywhere, all being polished by silent, careworn factory workers - their presence really rather distracted from the main action.

There is just that little bit too much of coincidence towards the end to make a really satisfactory conclusion to the story - the realisation that Cusins is technically an orphan and therefore able to inherit the factory from Undershaft is just that little bit too neat. And, while I think about it, being a child of parents whose marriage is not recognised by law does not make you an orphan, it makes you a bastard. I can't quite remember if Cusins reports that his parents are actually dead - perhaps he's an orphaned bastard? Anyway, it does still rather smack of Shaw having written himself into a slightly tight corner and using coincidence to get out of it, and its soooooo obvious at one point that this is how the plot is going to be unravelled that even I spotted it coming a long while off. The end, where Barbara decides to take her message to well fed, happy well-housed and employed factory workers rather than to the underclasses of society struggling to make ends meet (and who are therefore presumably considerably more in need of the few comforts that religon and a hot meal can bring) leaves a slightly bitter taste which seems to debase Shaw's socialist tenets.

Performances were, on the whole, very good and assured (though this was only a preview performance) - even from the despised Mr. Russell Beale, who seems to have managed to reign in his propensity to spit all over people whilst speaking. There was considerably less of the slightly hysterical flapping about that he is prone to as well. Hayley Attwell made a fine Barbara, although seemed somehow more convincing in her uniform than her civvies. "Clothes makest man" says the Bible (or was it Shakespeare?) and she was all blood and fire in the former, and rather like a damp marshmallow in the latter. It must be a difficult part to play. Him Indoors raved about Clare Higgins (Lady Undershaft) but I personally found a lot of her dialogue very difficult to hear unless she was actually facing in my direction, as opposed to SRB who could probably have been heard in the wings, the flies and the street outside. Jessica Gunning was strangely cast as Sarah Undershaft, looking rather like one of her father's airships(bustles and ruffles do not sit well on the short and, let us be frank, dumpy). In fact, because of this, it was a) hard to see her as part of the family, who were for the most part tall and elegantly spare and b) even harder to see why Tom Anderson's Charles Lomax was so desperately in love with her. Lomax is a standard "Silly Upper Class Ass" part and Anderson did all that was necessary for the role rather than all that was possible.

Of the smaller roles, Maggie McCarthy was a wonderful Mrs. Baines - all doughy faced but fervant and muscular Christianity, and Ian Burfield was delectably rough and ready as Bill Walker.

All in all an interesting, thought provoking production, raising all sorts of questions about sponsorship and donations, both to the Salvation Army and to "the arts" themselves. The place was packed out even though this was a preview showing, as CBB said at one point, that there is obviously a very large audience for "classic" plays which endure in their relevance and appeal over emphemerally fashionable "here today and gone tomorrow" new works. After a good evening out like this, I am inclined to agree.


Anonymous said...


Cant understand why my better half cant see the class of simon russell beale and must stick up for him in this he gave a totally different performance from his highly acclaimed Benedict in Much Ado. His Undershaft had the common touch and a very different vocal shift as SRB used his darker tones to argue so intelligently against what people would consider the norm.I read an article this week saying that SRB had never been in a shaw play before but seeing this makes you long for a higgins from him in either the musical or the play. and mark my words when Stage gong time comes around as it does very very soon mr Beale will not be forgotten. One of the most intelligentwatchable actor lionising the stage at the moment give him a knighthood and nail him to the floor of the national theatre for the next 20 years please
clive BB

pussycat said...

Not sure I agree with all of this as I thought it a superb production but I absolutely agree with your comments about the woefully mis-cast Jessica Gunning. She was fine in Much Ado, yet looked totally unconvincing as a member of the (elegant) Undershaft family - and her unflattering dress didn't help. Shame. Was she cast as Sarah for pc reasons, maybe?

rtb said...

Pussycat - there is absolutely no need for you to agree with anything I write. I merely put down my own thoughts on a production. Like the professional reviews (as I believe I have said at least three times before on this blog), they are just the opinion of one person (i.e. me).