Saturday, September 19, 2015

pshaw festival

Location: at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Attended: two plays by the sainted GBS.

Pygmalion, unfortunately, fell victim to the kind of pyggish director who believes in updating plays to make them "relevant". This long-standing disease in productions of Shakespeare (and opera) has now infected Shaw. Oh dear. On the belief that this is a play about class-rising aspiration, and the fact that class gradients are stronger in the UK today than a century ago when the play was written, it was given a contemporary setting. But that's not really the theme of the play, and there are too many century-old assumptions and manners of behavior built into the plot to make this work. For instance, an alarming number of references to physical violence have a disturbingly different resonance today that was not addressed. On top of which were picky issues like the opening scene in which Freddy runs around in the rain looking for a taxi. If this is today, why doesn't he just use Uber?

Some aspects worked better. Eliza was played by an actress of South Asian ancestry, which is the ethnicity she would have today, although she still spoke in cockney, or, rather, the best imitation of it that the actress (born in Kenya, raised in Ottawa) could manage. In the famous scene in which Eliza, asked if she will walk home, replies, "Not bloody likely; I'm going home in a taxi," for "bloody" was substituted a stronger expletive that still has the power to shock, and that was one piece of successful updating.

A production of the somewhat less well-known You Never Can Tell was staged in a conventional but imaginative manner. Like Mrs. Warren's Profession, which it somewhat resembles, it's one of Shaw's more amusing earlier plays. It's hard to describe briefly exactly what it's about, but one thing it's about is a woman so horrified by her former marriage that she has never informed her now-grown children of who their father is or anything about him. Then they run into him accidentally: hilarity and much Shavian dialogue ensue. At one point, one character says, "No, I will speak. I have been silent for nearly thirty seconds," which I consider the perfectly encapsulating Shaw line.

The acting and (insofar, in the case of Pygmalion, that it stuck to the play) directing were adequate but mostly not inspiring. It was all fast, but it could have been tighter and sparklier. Special points to Patrick McManus for playing the grouchy and obstreperous Higgins in Pygmalion in the evening, immediately after playing the even grouchier and more obstreperous father in You Never Can Tell in the afternoon.

The theatres here are strung out along the town's one main street, which is otherwise filled with a modest number of varyingly pretentious restaurants and a vast number of upscale and indulgent gift shops. Weather in September is cool and threatening, but without much actual rain.

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