Stage Door Review
Wednesday, August 9, 2023
by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Selma Dimitrijevic
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 8-October 7, 2023
A: “We must take the world as we find it. It's we that are not rightly arranged”
This season’s lunchtime play is Shaw’s charming 1934 comedy Village Wooing, a play not seen in Niagara-on-the-Lake since 1999. It’s one of Shaw’s funniest plays and its absence for so long is inexplicable. For that reason alone lovers of Shaw will want to see it. Unfortunately, rather than presenting the play in a straightforward fashion, director Selma Dimitrijevic has seen fit to turn the piece into a kind of game where she and her concept triumph over the actors, the play and the audience.
The plot concerns two characters, A and Z. A is a male itinerant writer of travel guides and Z, a female, runs a village shop and post office on the Wiltshire Downs. The two strangers meet on the lounge deck of a cruise ship during a round-the-world voyage. A is on the cruise because he is writing about it. Z is on the cruise because she won prize money in a newspaper contest and decided spend it all seeing the world.
At the start of the hour-long play’s three scenes, A can’t stand Z because she keeps interrupting him while he’s trying to work. Yet, by the end of the third and last scene the two are about to be married. How this enormous turnaround occurs in the relationship between A and Z during the course of the couple’s three hilarious conversations is the substance of the play.
What has inspired Dimitrijevic’s concept is that a permanent bond forms from a chance meeting. Her view is not strictly correct since Z tells A: “There are men – and good nice men, too – that I wouldn't let touch me. But when I saw you on the ship I said to myself “I could put up with him’”. Nevertheless, the idea of chance dominates her concept. Therefore, rather than choosing one actor to play A and another to play Z, Dimitrijevic has chosen three men for A and three women for Z. Just before the play begins, a lottery decides who will play each part. That means there are six possible combinates for the couple.
What makes this process so perverse is that only people who happen to have read the Shaw’s casting announcement in January 2023 will know that such a lottery has happened. The audience will assume that the A and Z have been deliberately cast in those roles from the beginning. If Dimitrijevic thinks her concept is so important, why not show the lottery in front of the audience to emphasize the role of chance, as Matthew Jocelyn did in his 2006 production of Corneille’s The Liar, instead of keeping it a secret?
What this means is that the rapport that two actors might establish during rehearsals in a two-hander like this is non-existent. Dimitrijevic is more interested in her concept rather than in actors bringing out nuances in the text through their frequent interactions. The great pity is that any one performance of Village Wooing this season will therefore only be a superficial reading.
It would be far better if Dimitrijevic insists on different pairings, to set up three different couples who would each play a limited run of the piece. It would then be quite intriguing how couple #1 would play the piece, versus couple #2 or #3. That system would actually encourage people to see the play more than once. Dimitrijevic’s current system actually discourages repeat visits because the chances are too great that you might see one of the two actors a second time.
After the A and Z for the performance have been chosen, the other four actors do not go home. Instead, Dimitrijevic has them appear constantly throughout the action – sitting on the floor, peering in from the wings or through the semi-transparent portions of Beyata Hackborn’s clever set, adding props to the scene while A and Z are speaking, dancing in the background. Dimitrijevic is obviously trying to demonstrate that what we are seeing is theatre and not real life (as if we couldn’t tell), but all of this peripheral motion is distracting. It demonstrates yet again that Dimitrijevic is not interested in elucidating the text as much as bridling the text with her concept.
Unsurprisingly, there is no bond between an A and Z chosen just before the performance. This was especially noticeable in the pairing I happened so see of David Adams as A and Donna Soares as Z. The two had different acting styles and presented their characters with quite different levels of detail.
David Adams provided a richly detailed performance of A. It was a delight to see how over the course of the three conversations that make up the play, Adams’s A gradually transformed from a satiric curmudgeon to a man who had become dissatisfied with his life to a man newly invigorated by a taking up a different vocation and the possibility of overcoming his lonely existence. The turning point comes in Scene 1 when Z says something that makes him laugh and Adams, simply through his facial expression and body language shows us that A is a man who sadly has laughed very seldom in his life. Adams’s precise diction and resonant voice assure that none of A’s witty remarks go unheard.
In contrast, Donna Soares said all her lines as Z but does not seem to have built up a character from these lines. Z undergoes a change as much as A, changing from a bored, non-intellectual young woman to a capable shopkeeper, comfortable in her own small world but aware how much more fulfilling that world would be with someone like kind, knowledgeable A to share it with. If Soares could muster some suggestion that Z feels an emotional desire for A, it would go a long way to giving their relationship the tension it currently lacks. Soares does not have the clarity of diction of Adams and has the unfortunate habit of lowering her volume when she comes to the end of a sentence. This is an impediment to enjoying the dialogue since how Shaw concludes a statement is often what makes it so amusing.
I have heard from other patrons that other combinations have been quite successful, but to leave the success of a play to chance is foolish. Village Wooing is a gem of a play that deserves a proper, well-considered, insightful production rather than be subject to a pointless directorial experiment that produced only the most superficial results. Before 2000 the Shaw Festival used to present Village Wooing about every 10 years. Let’s hope the Festival returns the play to that cycle and gives it the lively, nuanced production it deserves.
Photos: Donna Soares as Z and Kyle Blair as A with David Adams and Kiera Sangster looking on in background; David Adams as A. © 2023 David Cooper.
For tickets visit: www.shawfest.com.