Thursday, 13 March 2008

Review: Major Barbara, National Theatre

After an exciting production of Saint Joan in 2007 (which has just won the Olivier for best revival), the National gives Shaw another try with Nicholas Hytner’s more conventional staging of his 1905 play Major Barbara, also in the large and open Olivier Theatre. Essentially this is a three act dialectical exercise exploring the morality of money and religion (with weapons manufacture and supply on the side), it is also part light comedy and part social commentary. It shows the playwrights famous predilection for weighty, wordy and lengthy argument, but these arguments never bore (and the dialogue has been pruned slightly for 21st century attention spans), leading me to ask myself many questions which stayed with me for a considerable time.

At this point I should come out as an unashamed Shavian; I love his meaty dissection of ideas, his political and social insight, and am always interested in his commentary on British Society (much of which is still pertinent today. Jokes about buying a Peerage anyone?). I thought St Joan was a triumph, with an extraordinary central performance from a strong and unabashed actress (Ann Marie Duff), in a production that was imaginative and psychologically insightful. Unfortunately Major Barbara lack this kind of magnetic central performance; although Hayley Atwell is very decent as the eponymous Salvation Army officer, she is a little too timid at times, and I was unconvinced that her actions always chimed with her personality. Hytner’s direction is, as usual, exacting and intelligent, and the play speaks very much for itself without any gimmicks on the director’s part.

The real centre of the play is Andrew Undershaft (played wonderfully by Simon Russell Beal, a sort of utopian monster), Barbara and her siblings’ erstwhile father and a major arms manufacturer. In a rather uneven first act (less ideas, more light society comedy), the reliably eccentric and diverse upper class Undershafts are introduced. A bland eldest son, a silly daughter and her stupid twit of a fiancée, Barbara and her fellow Salvation Army Officer, professor of Greek and fiancée Adolphus, and of course an imperious matriarch, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Clare Higgins, funny, but trying a bit too hard). Their long absent father, an explanation that he is last in a long line of foundling Undershafts who have been acquired to take over the family arms business, and the fact that he intends to keep this ‘family’ tradition, are all added into the mix.

The second act is the heart of the play for me. We are in Barbara’s Salvation Army Mission in the East End, her father is about to visit (a reciprocal arrangement; she visits his factory tomorrow) and she is dealing with difficult destitutes and the possible closure of her hall. Barbara is a fiercely moral woman, who cannot see the need to compromise or bend in any way to human weakness or the inconvenient realities of society; she and her fellow soldiers could be said to be fighting the status quo of society, but strangely reinforcing its protestant work ethic at the same time. Barbara’s father offers a large donation to save the Mission and Barbara is implacably opposed to accepting it, feeling it is tainted and effectively immoral earnings. It really is a fascinating debate, money versus principals, and principals strained in the face of very useful money. Barbara is the classic absolutist; I would not have hesitated for a moment in relieving a rich man from his burden, even if only relatively modestly, which is exactly what her superior officer does. This moral conflict pushes Barbara to leave the Salvation Army, her ideal view of her own place in the world smashed, as anyone who has ever faced a truly bitter disappointment will be able to understand.

The third act sees Barbara and Adolphus (a wonderful and bearded Paul Ready, long a favourite of mine, giving a performance that grows visibly from scene to scene), back in civvy street, and the family Undershaft visiting the weapons factory (rows and rows of missiles filling the huge Olivier dead space). Adolphus, formerly a meek intellectual, puts himself forward to become the next foundling (his parents were never married legally in Britain, a slightly weak ploy) to run the Undershaft business. An engrossing exchange on the rights and wrongs of the business is conducted, but eventually we are left with the inevitable victory of capital over ideals, and with the kind of capitalism Shaw outlines that is a pretty bleak prospect. But it seems that Mr Undershaft really thinks that giving everyone the gun and grenade might empower the oppressed and eventually stop war. Us post MAD (mutually assured destruction) 21st Century dwellers think this sounds quite mad, but many of the other arguments sill ring true.

Mr Undershaft is an extraordinary man, he is a cruel capitalist, but beneficent employer, a utopian who believes in humanity, yet also one who would sell the weapons to all parties and destroy it. He understands the conflict in the human condition, he has money and power, and therefore he is a potentially dangerous man, and certainly a formidable one. He blasts his son, lecturing him on the true nature of British Government (capitalists like him, naturally), he shrewdly negotiates an heir to his business, and he roguishly charms his estranged wife. I felt that Mr Russell Beal really gave a first class performance of this complex and compelling character, he was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening.

Major Barbara is a play rich in ideas, satisfying intellectually precisely because it really makes you think and weigh up ideas. A fractured society, the morality of the super rich, absolutism and relativism, the world arms trade are all wonderfully addressed by Shaw, and I myself find it hard to come to solid conclusions on some of those key point, or at least I can certainly see two arguments. This is a solid and worthwhile production, one that I would not hesitate in recommending.