Stage Door Review
The Apple Cart
Monday, August 7, 2023
by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Eda Holmes
Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 9-October 7, 2023
King Magnus: “Ministers come and ministers go; but I go on for ever”
The Shaw Festival last presented Shaw’s 1929 play The Apple Cart in 2000. The play shouldn’t have had to wait so long for a revival, but in 2023 the work feels more relevant than ever. Partially this is because since the death of Elizabeth II in 2022 Britain has a king again, and Shaw’s fictional King Magnus often seems like an avatar of King Charles III defending his right to rule. Mostly, though, the play seems amazingly up to date in its satire of the nature of democracy and the workings of government at a time when governments around the globe do not seem to be working and when democracy appears to be in decline.
The Apple Cart has only a rudimentary plot. In Act 1, the Prime Minister and his cabinet present King Magnus with an ultimatum that he must sign or else the PM and cabinet will resign en masse. The ultimatum would strip the constitutional monarch of the little power he has. He must make no more speeches, the Palace must not leak information to the press and worst of all, the King must never mention his power of veto. In what Shaw calls “An Interlude”, we see an entirely different side of the King a lively discussion between the Magnus and his sensuous mistress Orinthia. Then in Act 2 Magnus delivers his response to the ultimatum.
The plot is thus clearly only a podium which various forces can seize to voice their arguments for and against a constitutional monarchy and for and against democracy. As lovers of Shaw will know, Shaw has a knack few playwrights have, of making a heated debate on general topics as exciting as drama. When The Apple Cart was first staged in 1929, critics felt that Shaw made such a convincing case for continuance of constitutional monarchy that he had given up his lifelong belief in socialism. That fact simply demonstrates Shaw’s great gift in making both sides of an argument appear attractive.
One of the many fascinating features of The Apple Cart is that Shaw has set the action 40 years in the future. Inevitably there are certain features of the future that Shaw does not get right, such as the continuance of the League of Nations into the 1960s. What is more remarkable, however, are the number of things Shaw does get right. He foresees that by the 1960s female members in Cabinet will be not be unusual. He gives us a Postmistress General and a Powermistress General. He also foresees that male-preference primogeniture will be abandoned so that the Princess of Wales, who we meet, will undisputedly succeed her father to the throne as Queen. In reality, Shaw was optimistic on this point since the rule of male primogeniture was not abandoned until 2011.
What Shaw foresees that is rather chilling is the ascendancy of corporations to the point that they have more power than countries. In the play the corporation that seems to control everything is called Breakages, Limited. The company destroys free market capitalism on two counts. First, as the Postmistress General complains, “Every new invention is bought up and suppressed by Breakages, Limited”. Second, the company institutes what we now call planned obsolescence, “But for them we should have unbreakable glass, unbreakable steel, imperishable materials of all sorts”.
Shaw not only foresees this but the shipping of jobs abroad where goods can be made more cheaply than in Britain: “we have not abolished poverty and hardship. Our big business men have abolished them. But how? By sending our capital abroad to places where poverty and hardship still exist: in other words, where labor is cheap”. These and innumerable other of Shaw’s insights into the future should make us see that what we think of a new problems are so very “new” at all.
What audiences will find more trenchant is Shaw’s critique of democracy. In 2020 Evan Osmos wrote in The New Yorker, “Is Democracy on the Decline in the United States?” In The Apple Cart, Shaw already details in 1929 how democracy will fall into decline. Magnus says that “the people have found out long ago that democracy is humbug, and that instead of establishing responsible government it has abolished it”. By that he means, “not that the people govern, but that the responsibility and the veto now belong neither to kings nor demagogues as such, but to whoever is clever enough to get them”, such as large corporations.
Other examples are when individuals are forced to vote as a bloc. In Mr. Boanerges we see a labour union boss who can command the unions to vote as he says. In Mr. Vanhatten, we see a representative of the world’s greatest democracy who explains enthusiastically how the US would like to “merge” with the Commonwealth, i.e. take it over completely. “How long until the capital moves from London to Washington”, the King pointedly wonders aloud.
In the midst of this unremitting satire of democracy, Shaw’s King Magnus remains untainted. Although the British king is supposed to be above politics, Shaw portrays Magnus as a master politician. Tom Rooney lends Magnus such calmness and restraint that nothing anyone says, no matter how outrageous, appears to fluster him. Yet, Rooney also gives the appearance that Magnus is constantly calculating where his opponents’ weakness is and how best to use it to his advantage. Magnus’s response to the ultimatum is a masterstroke of political wisdom. Rooney delivers the extremely long but beautifully structured speech on monarchy that Shaw gives Magnus in Act 1 with such clarity and vigour that Rooney was deservedly rewarded with a hearty round of applause.
As the play is structured, Magnus has two main opponents – one who would take away his power and one who would augment it. The first is his own Prime Minister Joe Proteus forcefully played by Graeme Somerville. In contrast to Magnus’s calm Proteus seems to be perpetually angry, not just with the King but with his own cabinet members. Somerville carefully gradates Proteus’ choler almost musically, rising to a crescendo in Act 1 and then rising to an even louder crescendo in Act 2. It is a great pleasure to see a character who is so absolutely sure of himself be completely outwitted.
Magnus’s second opponent is more an ethical than political obstruction. This character, surprisingly enough, is the King’s mistress Orinthia, played as a slinky tigress by Sochi Fried. The interview between Magnus and Orinithia takes up the “Interlude” Shaw has placed between the play’s two acts and Orinthia appears nowhere else in the play. What Orinithia represents is everything a constitutional monarch is not and can never be. Orinthia longs for Magnus to throw over his wife and allow her to be Queen so that she can exercise absolute power. She thinks of herself as a goddess compared to the common people where her royalty would be a display of her grandeur.
Clearly, Orinithia’s views derive from what monarchs may have been in the past with little understanding of how monarchs must be today. Symbolically, Magnus can have such dreams of power illicitly in private, but he is sensible enough to have a proper wife, Queen Jemima, as his legal consort in public. The scene between Magnus and Orinthia is the most sensuous Shaw ever wrote. Fried oozes sexual power and plays Orinthia as a force that could completely dominate Magnus if he allowed her to. In fact, what gives such tension to the scene is our fear that Magnus will not be able to resist her, which might be a kind of bliss for him as an individual but a disaster for him as the representative of his country.
Luckily for the Britain of the future, Magnus, like Shaw, has compartmentalized this temptation of unbridled power and is able to deal with other ministers not as a tyrant but almost as an equal. The first example Shaw gives us is how Magnus so magnanimously treats Billy Boanerges, the labour union leader. Martin Happer shows he is a master of subtle comedy in marking the change in Boanerges in being treated amiably, not confrontationally, by Magnus. Happer has all of Boanerges’ built-up aggression melt away and soon enough he is quoting Magnus to the ministers to keep them in line.
Sharry Flett and Rebecca Northan make a nice contrast as the two female members of cabinet. Unlike the male members, both support Magnus and decry the PM’s ultimatum. Flett as the Powermistress General gives well-argued, impassioned speeches about how Breakages, Limited is ruining democracy in the country. Northan as the Postmistress General is primarily given to laughing at the foolishness of the men around her without seeming foolish herself.
André Morin plays Sempronius, one of the cabinet secretaries, but his main role is that of the American Ambassador Vanhattan. Morin plays Vanhattan as so giddy with excitement that he seems clownish in face of the glacial reserve of Magnus and Queen Jemima (Bahareh Yaraghi). Morin has Vanhattan announce the merger of the United States and the United Kingdom with such exhilaration that we see Vanhattan has no clue whatever of the negative effect his news is having on the royal couple. In this Shaw neatly satirizes American innocence as well as its taste for expansionism.
In 2000 director Richard Greenblatt set the action in the year 2040 as if the play were still a fantasy of what might happen to democracy. This year director Eda Holmes has had designer Judith Bowden set the action in the 1960s as Shaw intended. Since the 1960s are now past, this setting gives us chilling sensation that the decline of democracy that Shaw foresees has already come to pass.
Any fan of British political comedy such as television’s Yes, Minister (1980-84) or Yes, Prime Minister (1986-87) will feel right at home with The Apple Cart. Indeed, Shaw’s play ups the ante beyond those two series by dealing with relation between the Prime Minister and the monarch himself. Long in advance of those beloved television series, Shaw’s play portrays British cabinet politics as more a game of oneupmanship and clinging to power than in seriously representing the will of the people. Yet, Shaw’s vision of the decline of democracy that might have seemed a fantasy in 1929, now chillingly strikes us as all too accurate. The play, while a comedy, should also function to make us question whether our cherished democratic institutions are really still as democratic as we thought they were. For this reason, I sincerely hope we do not have to wait another 23 years for another production of The Apple Cart.
Photo: Tom Rooney as King Magnus; clockwise from Tom Rooney as King Magnus (standing), Sharry Flett, Graeme Somerville, Rebecca Northan, Martin Happer, Travis Seetoo, Neil Barclay, Richard Lam and Kelly Wong; Graeme Somerville as Joe Proteus; Sochi Fried as Orinthia. © 2023 David Cooper.
For tickets visit: www.shawfest.com.