Wednesday, July 9, 2014

This week it's not movies - it's stage

The Shaw Festival. Two days, three plays, three different playwrights, none by Shaw but all British and two set in Shaw’s Edwardian England - St. John Hankin’s The Charity that Began at Home, and still living dramatist Edward Bond’s The Sea. The third was J. B. Priestley’s 1930s When We Are Married. All, to some extent, are comedies. One deals overtly with social issues (Charity). Two have imperious matriarchal characters – great Canadian actress Fiona Reid masterfully as Lady Denison in Charity and as Louise Rafi in The Sea (not dissimilar to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey). And all three get in their licks at Britain’s anachronistic upper class snobs. But while Charity and Married are somewhat outright comedies The Sea is mostly a dark and surreal take on loss, insanity and powerlessness served up with creative sound effects (the stirring echoes of Pink Floyd) and props……Charity is a send up of the once fashionable practice among the upper class of befriending those lower than themselves in the interest of presumed generosity. Here Hankin skewers the obvious, to us, phoniness. A disparate group of unlikable types (one a bore, one personally disagreeable, one a gambler) is brought to Lady Denison’s house thinking they are truly worthy of a graceful visit with her fineness yet soon learning it’s a lie, with predictable – and hilarious - results. But the table is turned on the hosts when Lady Denison’s daughter Margery (Julia Course) falls in love with ne’er do well Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer), whose moral character actually impugns them.……Meanwhile in The Sea, a much more complex play, the set depicts an impoverished coast town traumatized  by the loss at sea of a native son. But like today’s Kennedy assassination and 9/11 conspiracy theorists a central character, the draper Hatch - in a role searingly performed by Patrick Galligan - believes the cause of death is really beings from another planet, as he descends into madness (picture above).  Mrs. Rafi rules the small town society, intimidating the merchant and everyone else within earshot. At turns the play seems about hopelessness – why was the young man lost, was the coastguard incompetent, are the villagers doomed to marginalization and unable to come to terms with anything around them. And, written from the vantage point of 1973, the play signals the oncoming onslaught of World War I, II and atrocities beyond. The most poignant lines come from the village’s moral centre, Evens (Peter Millard). Just when we think he has given up all hope for humanity Evens tells youthful Willy (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), a colleague of the drowned Colin, “Now go, catch the 11.45 and change the world”…..After The Sea’s heaviness When We Are Married is light and frothy indeed but not without substance. Three couples are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and wait for the local newspaper to take their picture and record the esteemed event. The couples, you see, have a certain ranking in Yorkshire’s business and political circles. The men in fact are English versions of American Babbits, satisfied with their middle aged, middle class lives. But beyond appearances their marriages are in a hundred ways threadbare, held together only by social custom and religion. But that soon explodes when it’s revealed their marriages were never official - or were they? – setting forth pent-up recriminations between the spouses. It’s really all good fun, and there are laughs galore, with the main characters well on their acting game and Peter Krantz as the photographer a particular hoot. But junior maid Ruby’s lines were sometimes indecipherable because of actor Jennifer Dzialoszynski’s high pitched tone.

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