George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara, National Theatre, London

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Paul Anderson and Hayley Atwell in Shaw's Major Barbara, at the National Theatre, London, photo Catherine Ashmore

Paul Anderson and Hayley Atwell in Shaw’s Major Barbara, at the National Theatre, London, photo Catherine Ashmore

George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara
National Theatre, London

Director: Nicholas Hytner
Snobby Price : Paul Anderson
Charles Lomax : Tom Andrews
Barbara Undershaft : Hayley Atwell
Bill Walker : Ian Burfield
Jenny Hill : Katharine Burford
Bilton : Martin Chamberlain

The long nights are already on the wane, but one leaves the theatre with a glow on the horizon, and a newspaper can be read outdoors well after nine o’clock.Fresh off the plane (i.e., as grungy as five-day-old socks) I tried not to go groggy at the National Theatre’s production of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Putting on a play by Shaw is like sticking your head out of a foxhole to see who shoots. Nobody could be more fusty and out of favour (perhaps the two Barries, James and Philip), but the London critics were mostly happy and none were snarky.

Shaw was a one-man engine for social upliftment, yet almost nobody hitched their wagons to his train. He fought the good fight for justice for the poor, and he clubbed the philistines on behalf of modernism. But Shaw’s modernism espoused Wagner and Ibsen, and by the time Eliot and Pound arrived on the scene , his squibs had fizzled. Shaw wound up the kind of ‘genius’ Time magazine could extol (his furrowed brow, as photographed in old age, looked like Michelangelo’s Moses, but in essence Shaw was a cheerful voice in a time of terror and upheaval. In other words, a toy boat tootling around in the century’s bloodbaths.

Major Barbara argues for a cause that’s unexceptionable: opposition to arms dealing.The twist is that the dealer in question is the sanest, most rational, generous, and intelligent character in the play. Shaw doesn’t seem to realize that these qualities matter not at all when your trade is mechanized death. The title character was played at the National by the slight, pretty, very agreeable Hayley Atwell. As a savior of souls for the Salvation Army, being agreeable isn’t the first traitthat comes to mind. A young Vanessa Redgrave would have stalked the stage and wrestled unrepentant sinners to the mat. Atwell offered tremulous pleas and gave in too easily to her father, the plutocrat weapons maker Andrew Undershaft, who undermines her idealism by demonstrating how quickly a bag of dirty shekels can buy off Barbara’s boss.

As in all of Shaw’s thesis plays, every character spins clever conundrums instead of speaking as believable human beings, and the whirling opinions begin to seem narcissistic before long. Each actor is a mouthpiece for Mr. Shaw, and only his teeming wit (mostly in the aphoristic vein of Oscar Wilde, sans wickedness) made the first hour worth staying awake for.

After intermission the opinionating grew more intense – higher morality was bandied about a lot — and thanks to a strange and wonderful performance by the domineering Simon Russell Beale as Undershaft, it was impossible not to pay attention. Beale understood the central weakness of the play, its incessant talkiness. He came up with long pauses at unexpected moments to keep the debate from deteriorating into a drone. On paper the notion of a dramatic pause sounds cliché, but Beale’s rasping staccato rhythms were as free form as beebop jazz.

As for the staging, it was all fringed silk lamp shades and horsehair divans until the last scene, set in Undershaft’s armaments factory, which featured serried rows of artillery shells and a menacing rat-a-tat stolen from the Nibelungen’s anvil chorus in Das Rheingold.

The hints of war’s true terror were minimal but effective, because it rounded off Shaw’schattering debate with a shudder. One left the theatre remembering that shudder when the swirling cloud of verbiage dissipated over the Thames, whose waters sparkled from the reflected lights of the crenelated Savoy Hotel on the opposite bank.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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