Stage Door Review
Monday, August 12, 2019
by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Tanja Jacobs
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 25-October 13, 2019
Collins: “Bless you, ma’am, there’s all sorts of bonds between all sorts of people”
After only three one-act plays by Shaw last year it is a relief to have a full-length Shaw play this year. It may seem strange to people who are not into Shaw to hear how refreshing it is to hear Shaw’s wit and elegant prose for its two hours. Long-time Festival-goers will think, “This is what the Shaw Festival is all about. Shaw’s plays are a pleasure, not a duty. All the other plays are ancillary to illuminating his work”. Though last year the Festival got rid of nearly all its actors over 55, it still has enough actors who grew up with them who know how to speak Shaw’s compound complex sentences with elegance and verve. If you can’t afford to see the rather expensive “special event” of Man and Superman opening on August 24, Getting Married playing now will give you just the dose of Shaw you need at the Shaw Festival.
Shaw is often accused of presenting debates in the guise of plays. Why that is generally untrue, the notion does apply to Getting Married (1908). The genius of Shaw, a forerunner of the plays of ideas of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, is that he knew how to make an intellectual dispute so witty and amusing. When the topic is marriage, as it is here, specifically, whether to get married or not, he has chosen a subject most everyone can identify with.
As I explained in my background summary for the Festival’s production in 2008, “The play has a minimal plot. Alice Bridgenorth and her husband Alfred, the Anglican Bishop of Chelsea, are looking forward to the marriage of their youngest daughter Edith to the worthy young Cecil Sykes. The various acquaintances and relatives who gather in the kitchen of the episcopal palace are suddenly abashed to learn that Edith and Cecil have called off the wedding at the last moment because of a pamphlet both have read exposing the ‘true nature' of marriage. Because the group in the kitchen has been having their own tussle over what marriage should and should not be, the new event causes them to try to draft a contract of marriage that will treat men and women as equal partners. When this project fails, it falls to the arrival of a deus ex machina in the form of the voluptuous Lady Mayoress, Mrs. George Collins, to sort out all the difficulties”.
Though it may not be obvious during the course of the play, Shaw has divided his dramatis personae into three groups who each represent a different attitude toward marriage. The Bishop and his wife represent a happily married couple. Chick Reid makes Alice an eminently sensible person who sees love as the only basis for marriage. Graeme Somerville lends the Bishop a palpable sense of long-considered wisdom. Contrary to what one might think, this Bishop is the more open-minded character in the play who has long suspected that marriage would one day become primarily a legal rather than religious act.
Opposite to the Bishop and his wife are the Bishop’s brother, General “Boxer” Bridgenorth played by Martin Happer, hopelessly in love with Alice’s sister, Lesbia Grantham, a woman who values her independence above all else and thus refuses his every proposal. Happer has become something of an expert at playing hunky but dim-witted characters and finds much humour in the contrast between the General’s dashing, uniformed exterior and his highly sentimental interior. Lesbia is the one part of the external world he cannot conquer and falls to pieces every time he is rejected. Claire Jullien is a fine counterpart to Happer since her feminine exterior conceals her fiercely inflexible interior. Jullien shows that Lesbia does waver at the thought of never having children, but Lesbia conquers this weakness even when the General cannot conquer his.
In contrast to the happily married couple and the never-to-be-married couple is a third group who is opposed to conventional marriage entirely. Reginald Bridgenorth (played by Steven Sutcliffe), brother of Alfred and “Boxer”, has recently publicly assaulted his wife Leo (Monice Peter) so that she may divorce him and run off with her lover St. John Hotchkiss (Ben Sanders), a man Reginald likes to have about the house since Reginald realizes he is not as entertaining as St. John.
Shaw uses this trio both to satirize current British laws that made divorce almost impossible and to push the possibilities of marriage even farther. (British law, as the programme notes point out, still makes divorce unusually difficult.) We discover that Leo only wants a divorce from Reginald because that is the only choice the law gives her if she wishes to change husbands. Ideally, she wishes the law allowed a kind of polyandry where she could have several husbands each to suit her moods.
Sutcliffe makes Reginald appear so weak and confused it is hard to believe he could really have assaulted his wife. As it turns out, his confusion stems from his fear that the others will not understand he was acting at his wife’s behest. Compared to Alice and Lesbia, Peter’s Leo is the most sensuous woman in the room. Though her desire for polyandry may seem licentious, in fact, Peter makes clear that Leo has very sensible reasons why one person should not be forced to be tied to only one other person for life. Sanders’s St. John at first appears the least salubrious person present since we think his advances broke up Reginald and Leo’s marriage. When we know the truth we find he is just as reasonable as the Bishop.
A fourth couple is, of course, the couple, Edith and Cecil, whom all the above have gathered to see married. Following the general scheme of the play in which our first impressions prove to be incorrect, Katherine Gauthier and Cameron Grant make an initial impression of two slightly dense, overly impressionable young people. It turns out that they are not as irrational as we may have thought since they solve the difficulties they have with conventional marriage by creating what is in effect a prenuptial contract.
The three remaining characters, although they do not appear with partners, also represent three more positions on marriage that Shaw adds to his lively survey of the subject. One of these is the Bishop’s unsociable chaplain, Father Anthony Soames, who believes in celibacy. Andrew Lawrie makes him into a comically humourless prig.
Another, the main commentator on the action, is the philosophical greengrocer-cum-caterer, William Collins, who, unlike the Bishop, is married out of duty rather than love. Damien Atkins makes him the most memorable character of the play with his lower-class accent and matter-of-fact manner of describing the most unusual occurrences. Shaw’s stage directions say Collins is merely folding napkins as a caterer might for the wedding dinner, but director Tanja Jacobs has Atkins fold count and fold napkins and put them in a drawer. Beside being distracting, this confusingly suggests Collins is the house butler rather than the visiting caterer. Fine as Atkins’s performance is, it can’t be denied that he is too young for the role of a man who has seen five of the Bishop’s daughter’s married. In 2008 the role was played by Michael Ball, since Collins really should be the oldest person present.
The most flamboyant character is Mrs. George Collins, the Lady Mayoress and sister-in-law of William Collins. She is married but her husband allows her to have as many affairs as she likes because she always comes back. As William Collins says, “But I will say for Mrs. George that the variety of experience made her wonderful interesting”. Marla McLean plays her doing her vamping best to imbue her with sensuousness and power. Mrs. George compels everyone to speak the truth when asked. And she is gifted with second sight. In a magical moment that steps out of the play’s framework of realism and comedy, she falls into a trance where she speaks for all women and asks, “We possessed all the universe together; and you ask me to give you my scanty wages as well. I have given you the greatest of all things; and you ask me to give you little things. I gave you your own soul: you ask me for my body as a plaything. Was it not enough? Was it not enough?”
As with Atkins, compelling as McLean’s performance is, she is too young to play a woman so rich in experience as Mrs. George is said to be. A failing at the Shaw Festival last year and this is the absence of so many older actors suitable for roles that younger ones have been asked to play. This discrimination against age never used to happen at the Festival. It’s a shame that it does now, especially when so many plays of the period require senior actors.
In terms of design the current production is not as striking as was that of 2008. Shannon Lea Doyle gives us only a modern kitchen with medieval accents for the two doors. Each half of her great double door to the kitchen improbably blocks the hallway it leads to so that people cannot enter. Sue LePage’s design in 2008 made the entire kitchen a relic of the Middle Ages which well suited the discussion whether marriage is really an unnecessary holdover of older times. Doyle has updated the period from 1908 to 1950, which is probably the last possible year in which the ideas of Leo Bridgenorth and Mrs. George could be considered outrageous.
Getting Married may be a debate disguised as a comedy but Shaw has turned that disguise into delightful entertainment. With one witty remark following another, it is laugh-out-loud funny. It is the longer-running of the two Shaws this season and could not give a better impression of the Shaw Festival’s namesake playwright.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Chick Reid as Alice Bridgenorth and Graeme Somerville as Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea; Monice Peter as Leo Bridgenorth, Ben Sanders as St. John Hotchkiss, Steven Sutcliffe as Reginald Bridgenorth, Graeme Somerville as Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea, Martin Happer as General Bridgenorth, Cameron Grant as Cecil Sykes and Claire Jullien as Lesbia Grantham, © 2019 Emily Cooper; Marla McLean as Mrs. George Collins, © 2019 David Cooper.
For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.