At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario

The last time the Shaw Festival produced Shaw’s blockbuster marathon was in 2004 with a wonderful production directed by the late Neil Munro and it was very nice to see in the program notes a well deserved tribute to Munro by Shaw’s Associate Assistant Director, Kate Hennig. At a top price of $270.00 a ticket (the cheap seats are only $180.00!) it is highly unlikely that your faithful reviewer will battle the traffic down the QEW to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see a play that is supposed to be dedicated to a more egalitarian society but is being presented by a theatre that has decided to largely cater to the carriage trade. In fact, the unconscionable price of a seat leads one to really question whether or not the Shaw’s board of director’s ought to be receiving one penny of public funding from the various government art councils when they so flagrantly violate the sacred oath of government subsidy of the arts and that is, to serve The Audience.

With that in mind, I leave you here with my 2004 review of Neil Munro’s production of Man and Superman/ Don Juan in Hell. RIP Neil.

By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Neil Munro
Featuring: Ben Carlson, Fiona Byrne, Evan Buliung,
David Schurmann, Benedict Campbell, Sharry Flett,
Patrick Galligan, Lisa Norton and Graeme Somerville
Until October 9 at the Festival Theatre

Reviewed by Robin Breon

In the new musical adaptation of Aristophanes’s The Frogs, which recently opened on Broadway, Nathan Lane plays a tippling Dionysus who travels to Hades in order to seek out a great playwright who might come back to earth and set things right again. In the original, the playwright was Aeschylus, in Lane’s version he seeks out G.B. Shaw. Theatergoers don’t need to go to hell, but rather a quaint little town in Southern Ontario named Niagara-On-The-Lake to find the power of Shaw’s ideas alive and well on this earth.

Although the Shaw Festival’s magnificent production of Man and Superman will run until October 9, for eleven special performances this summer the company also included the third act “dream play”, Don Juan in Hell, a philosophical debate in which the principal characters in Man and Superman morph into Don Juan, Dona Ana, and The Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This segment is often performed as a stand-alone piece and there are some veterans who still remember the 1951-52 tour that featured Charles Laughton as the Devil, performing with Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead that played to a sold out crowd at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

So the occasion for a five hour performance of the entire play (with two intermissions and a pleasant 45 minute “lunch break”) was a cause for great excitement among Shavians internationally and they were not disappointed. To see a supremely well written play, superbly acted is an occasion to be savored. This was Olympian theatre and there were some world records broken.

I don’t know where Ben Carlson‘s career will ultimately lead him, but his note perfect rendition of the young iconoclast, John Tanner, will go down in the annals of Canadian theatre history. Shaw often compared his writing for the theatre to musical composition and indeed he felt this work, in its entirety, was akin to grand opera. To hear Carlson work with a romantic ballad, gear up to his punctuated sixteenth note recitatives and still leave more for a thundering oratorio (remember, as Don Juan he’s debating the Devil) augmented by crescendos and chromatic runs while never losing the sense and meaning of it all, gives you an indication of why this extended political, philosophical exegesis left the audience roaring their approval with prolonged applause when director Neil Munro loosened the reins, brought up the house lights and let Carlson and Shaw go full throttle from the edge of the apron on the Festival stage.

But a production of this kind could never succeed without some strong back up. And here is where Benedict Campbell as Mendoza, the former waiter turned socialist brigand turned businessman leaves no slack to pick up. In the mountains of Spain’s Sierra Nevada he and his companeros (George Dawson as Duval, Jay Turvey as the Anarchist, Jeff Madden as the Rowdy Social Democrat and Jeff Meadows as the Sulky Social Democrat) pretty much cover the entire spectrum of the social democratic debate that plagues us still. Campbell’s Devil in the dream play conjures the possibility of no heaven – or at least a rather boring one – with great delight and ultimately concludes of the whole mess on earth, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Patrick Galligan as the worker-intellectual, Henry Straker, is funny, flippant and thoughtful as Tanner’s confidant and sometimes foil who will throw a monkey wrench into a car engine as well as a political debate as he spars with dilettantes and arm chair revolutionaries. Evan Buliung plays the lovelorn Octavius Robinson with just the right contrapuntal minor mode riffs as the third point of the love triangle between Jack Tanner and Ann Whitefield.

David Schurmann‘s appropriately stiff portrayal of the old guard guardian Roebuck Ramsden (and also the Statue in the dream play) has the necessary decorum in both roles. As Ann Whitefield’s legal guardian, Schurmann kicks off the central conceit of the play with just the right level of antagonism and disdain for Jack Tanner’s left-wing screed, A Revolutionist’s Handbook which he condemns in great detail while sanctimoniously declaring, “I haven’t read it”.

For all of Shaw’s posturing around emancipation and equal rights for women, he doesn’t endow much agency to the women characters in Man and SupermanFiona Byrne‘s subdued Ann Whitefield almost seems built into the role while Sharry Flett as Mrs Whitefield does her best to be concerned that her daughter may not marry well enough for her station in life.

Director Neil Munro wisely lets the play be the centerpiece of this production but set designer, Peter Hartwell probably realizes by now that it was a mistake to cover the chairs in his minimalist set in such a way that left the actors constantly fighting with the drapery when they had to either move or sit down.

The program notes for Man and Superman lead with a quote from Shaw that says: “My plays have only one subject: life, and only one attribute: interest in life.” For the next five hours the playwright goes on to condemn capitalism and the wars that arise from it, weapons of mass destruction, torture, religious hypocrisy, capital punishment, the idle rich, bigotry, prejudice, slavery, and a class based society while continuing on to celebrate reason, social democracy and the evolution of the human spirit through something enduring and eternal that he calls “the life force.” He does this all through a play that basically fits the dramatic conventions of his day in the form of a romantic love triangle.

There aren’t too many playwrights around capable of performing this kind of hat trick and it would be worth traveling to hell and back in order to find one.

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