Saturday, March 08, 2008
A Major Staging
To the National on Wednesday night for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Having really enjoyed their staging of Saint Joan last year I was looking forward to this a great deal.
Having missed the recent-ish staging at the Orange Tree, the play was new to me. It begins with Lady Britomart finding herself forced to get in touch with her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, in order to secure her children’s financial futures: while one daughter is due to marry money, the other, Barbara, has devoted herself to saving souls at the Salvation Army.
Undershaft is an arms magnate who owns a vast weapons factory – to the zealous Barbara, her father’s money is tainted. So they make a deal, he will visit her shelter and see the work she does there, if she will then visit his factory. Thus the groundwork is set for a particularly meaty battle of ideas.
The play quickly moves away from the genteel and familiar drawing room setting of the opening scenes – where the wonderful Claire Higgins holds court in true Lady Bracknell fashion – to the drab, grey expanse of the Salvation Army shelter in the East End, a place where violence and desperation are part of life and the Salvationists offer the poor a sustaining slice of bread and treacle along with prayer and the promise of God’s love. Naturally many are apt to declare themselves saved as long as they get fed in exchange.
Undershaft argues that poverty is a barrier to true spiritual discourse and that, when the body is starving, it is hard to concentrate on higher matters. At his factory the workers are well provided for on every level and this makes them freer people. Barbara, however, believes that money only corrupts, particularly when it comes from the coffers of men who manufacture whisky or, worse, weapons, for a living. So she is appalled when the shelter accepts money from her father in order to stay afloat, even if it would have had to close without it.
Simon Russell Beale was subtly wonderful as Undershaft. He resisted the urge to make the character overly bombastic and seemed to convey so much without actually doing a lot. In particular, his deep-rooted love for his daughter, his aching admiration for her, was always painfully evident, though he never put it into words. I was les convinced by Hayley Atwell’s Barbara. Yes, she nailed the girl’s conviction and idealistic zeal, but I found her performance otherwise a little flat. My flatmate disagreed on this, and was particularly taken with what she termed Atwell’s ‘feverish, near-consumptive quality.’ This rather passed me by, though it’s hardly Atwell’s fault that Shaw rather sweeps her character aside in the second half to concentrate on the argument between Undershaft and Barbara’s Greek scholar fiancé, who is rather conveniently a foundling (because his parent’s marriage was illegal in England) and is thus eligible to take on the Undershaft business empire.
The set for this final battle of words is quite striking, rows and rows of missiles, filling the Olivier stage – it has a cinematic quality and is one of the best uses of that space I’ve seen in a while. Though the play nudges near the three hour mark, it was only in the last fifteen minutes or so that it loosened its dramatic grip, with the last bout of verbal jousting about ‘making war on war’ not quite packing the punch that it could have. Even so, the play, with its myriad digs at politicians, lawyers and journalists, still feels amazingly pertinent and resonant.
Sadly this time there were to be no Jeffery Archer sightings, however I did spot Jim Broadbent in the Olivier bar – though admittedly that doesn’t have the same ironic impact.