Stage Door Review

The Devil’s Disciple

Saturday, August 28, 2021

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by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Eda Holmes

Shaw Festival, The Nona Macdonald Stage, Niagara-on-the-Lake

July 23-October 9, 2021

Anderson: “It is in the hour of trial that a man finds his true profession”

When I reviewed the Shaw Festival’s production of The Devil’s Disciple in 2009, I doubted that that production would ever be surpassed. On the evidence of the current production of the Shaw’s 1897 melodrama, that statement still stands true, though it must be said that director Eda Holmes does make the structure of the play even clearer than did Tadeusz Bradecki in 2009. Holmes presents a well-considered Devil’s Disciple that pays close attention to the text, but the show receives demerits for problems with the physical set-up of the outdoor stage and with a certain unevenness of the cast.

The performances of The Devil’s Disciple take place on the Nona Macdonald Stage which is under a large marquee occupying a large portion of the Festival Theatre parking lot. Unlike the productions of Charley’s Aunt and Flush there are no plans for this play to transfer to an indoor theatre. That’s rather too bad since the present set-up is not ideal.

The stage is set up alley-style with the audience split on either either side. Each side has one tier so that the heads of at least some audience members will be above those of others. Otherwise, the seating from stage to tier and on the tier itself is flat.

The set designed by Michael Gianfrancesco uses four wooden pillars to support a frame suggesting a roof. the problem is that the lighting grid over the stage is also supported by four pillars and these each cover part of the stage near each wooden pillar. Had the Festival used a marquee with a higher roof, the supports for the grid could have been outside the wooden pillars and the sight-lines would be clear. As it is, those sitting on either side in the audience will have to look through the metal supports at any action happening near the wooden pillars. As a result, even though I was in the front of a tier and near the centre, I found myself having to look through the lighting grid supports far too often to decipher what was happening on stage.

Those unfamiliar with the play should note that it is unusual for Shaw in that it is set in America, specifically in New Hampshire, in 1777 during the War of Independence.  Dick Dudgeon (Martin Happer), the title character, has received his nickname because he proudly proclaims he honours the Devil not God, because it is clear to Dick that what happens on earth is the Devil’s work.  He returns to his family home where is mother (Chick Reid) is mourning, at least in show, the death of her husband whose will is about to be read.  When it turns out his father has left everything to him, Dick invites his despised orphaned cousin Essie (Shauna Thompson) to stay and states he is a rebel against the British thus making the house inhospitable to his cowardly family including his mother.

In looking closely at the text, Holmes has realized that just because anti-British scoundrel Dick Dudgeon is the title character not not mean that he is the play’s hero. As Holmes sees it that role belongs to Reverend Anthony Anderson (Graeme Somerville), initially Dudgeon’s polar opposite – a man of God, not of the devil. He is the one who takes action when it is most imperative to do so. As Anderson says of himself, “It is in the hour of trial that a man finds his true profession”.

That does not mean that Dudgeon is unheroic. When Anderson has fled his home and wife Judith (Katherine Gauthier), Dudgeon allows the British to arrest him as Anderson to aid in Anderson’s escape. After many twists and turns the play ends at the gallows when Dudgeon as the false Anderson is about to be hanged. It is this kind of scene that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill satirized at the end of The Threepenny Opera (1928). It is already clear in Shaw’s text that he himself is satirizing the methods of melodrama even as he uses them to structure his play.

Holmes has well cast the play with Martin Happer as Dudgeon and Graeme Somerville as Anderson. Happer, as he’s shown in past roles at the Shaw, quite easily plays a man of action whom one does not expect to be a man of thought while Somerville, as he’s shown in past roles at the Shaw, quite easily plays a man of thought whom one does expect to be a man of action.

Yet both actors, like the characters they play, overturn our expectations. The fact that Happer presents Dudgeon as so rough-hewn makes his besting of the British officials at his show trial all the more humorous as his cynicism and common sense shatter the British façades of rule of law and rationality. Similarly, in this production it is especially exciting to see how the intellectual Anderson has so skillfully applied his cleverness to the realm of action.

The main flaw in the casting that of Katherine Gauthier as Judith Anderson. Just as he does in Arms and the Man (1894), Shaw uses a naive woman as the butt of his satire of hero-worship. Judith is at first repulsed by Dudgeon’s coarseness and sides with her upright husband. But when her husband seems to flee the house and Dudgeon allows himself to be arrested as Anderson, Judith suffers what should be a comic inner battle of allegiance to her husband versus to Dudgeon the hero.

In 2009 Fiona Byrne brought off the comedy of Judith’s inner battle perfectly. Here Gauthier is not fully in command of her voice and thus does not deliver her lines with any nuance. This is a role that requires an ability to convey layers of meaning, to say one thing while suggesting another. Gauthier, who can only convey varying emotions sequentially, not simultaneously, cannot do this and the comedy of the role is lost.

It is, however, possible to overplay comedy and this, surprisingly, is what Johnathan Sousa does as Christy, Dick Dudgeon’s dim-witted brother. Sousa has given many fine performances at Stratford, so it’s a mystery while his should choose such a broad acting style in voice and gesture that does not match that of the other performers.

Meanwhile, Kristopher Bowman and Tom McCamus are well contrasted as the two main British officers Major Swindon and General Burgoyne (1722-92) the principal historical figure in the play. Bowman plays Swindon as a typical British officer who never strays beyond the rule book and unthinking patriotism. McCamus, on the other hand, lends his sonorous voice and wry intonation to Swindon’s superior who sees events in a larger context that may not always be to Britain’s advantage.

Because of the casting of Black actor David Alan Anderson as pompous Uncle Titus and a sympathetic British chaplain, it’s hard to know whether the casting of Black actor Shauna Thompson as Dudgeon’s cousin Essie is colour-blind or colour-conscious. In either case, this casting decision gives the play an unexpected contemporary spin. Dudgeon’s mother is always played as unreasonably strict and hidebound which Chick Reid brings off well. In previous productions of the play, Mrs. Dudgeon’s impolite treatment of Essie could be attributed primarily to Mrs. Dudgeon’s disdain of her illegitimate birth. Here her treatment of the meek but kind Essie appears mixed with a casual racism that shows up all her Christian piety as hypocrisy. Such simple lines to Essie as “Don’t answer me, Miss; but show your obedience by doing what I tell you” thus take on an added distastefulness and makes a stronger case for Dudgeon’s rejection of his mother.

 For those who did not see the 2009 Devil’s Disciple, this production is worth seeing for the strong dynamic Holmes establishes between Dudgeon and Anderson and for the parallel though lesser dynamic set up between Swindon and Burgoyne. Though the stage is under the marquee, Holmes takes advantage of our ability to see through its open sides and thus view the approach of British troops far in advance of their entry on stage. This gives an pleasurable immersive quality to the production in using the outdoor setting to such good advantage.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Kristopher Bowman as Major Swindon, Martin Happer as Richard Dudgeon, Tom McCamus as General Burgoyne with the cast of The Devil’s Disciple; David Alan Anderson as Uncle Titus, Katherine Gauthier as Judith Anderson, Martin Happer as Richard Dudgeon, Chick Reid as Mrs. Dudgeon and Graeme Somerville as Reverend Anthony Anderson with the cast of The Devil’s Disciple; Graeme Somerville as Reverend Anthony Anderson and Martin Happer as Richard Dudgeon© 2021 Lauren Garbutt.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.