Friday, January 1, 2016

Arms and the Man

Sydney Theatre Company presents ARMS AND THE MAN, by George Bernard Shaw in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, 13 September - 31st October, 2015.

This is a catch-up diary entry for ARMS AND THE MAN. It was seen in September/October for goodness sake!

I am always keen to see the work of G.B. Shaw on stage. I do count his work as some of my favourite: HEARTBREAK HOUSE, SAINT JOAN, MAN AND SUPERMAN, MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, MISALLIANCE even THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE, THE DOCTOR'S DILEMMA, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, are want to see's. Maybe even YOU NEVER CAN TELL and MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION. And I do hope to see - long to see - before I die, BACK TO METHUSELAH. Now there's a collection of plays that our post-modernist textual game-players should browse - you know who you are. I mean in that over 100 page, double-columned volume of 5-parts in my collection, such a  remarkably prescient vision of mankind is explored. E.G. Part II: THE GOSPEL OF THE BROTHERS BARNABAS, expedites with biting wit the political activities of our present governments over the dilly-dallying of action over such things as, perhaps, by inference, Climate Change; while PART V:  AS FAR AS THOUGHT CAN REACH is scarily prescient to those of us who identify with the He- and She-Ancients of the play (just youthful floating brains, floating around, having shuffled off the decaying flesh! - Shaw and H.G. Wells and science fiction as prediction!)  I have seen a production of this work. It was at NIDA with Alexander Hay guiding some students  through this amazing work, tears and years ago. It was quite long. Painful, perhaps by the minute, but Glorious by the many, many hours.

ARMS AND THE MAN is one of Shaw's early plays, published usually in a collection known as PLAYS PLEASANT (Others include: CANDIDA, THE MAN OF DESTINY, YOU NEVER CAN TELL) and has a residual fame for me, mostly connected to the reviews of performances by Lawrence Olivier and Ralph Richardson as the two protagonists in a famous production long, long ago, last century.  This play was written in 1894 or so, in the era of a burgeoning British Empire of subjugated colonies and bloody warfare - all for Queen and Country, Commerce and Religion. Contrary to the derring-do of other writers of this period - Rudyard Kipling or H. Rider Haggard, for instance - G.B. Shaw as a Socialist activist was in abhorrence of such exploits and exploitation. ARMS AND THE MAN deals with the circumstances of a real war - a distant Bulgarian one, sufficiently distant from British realities to make it seem a cartoon Ruritanian one, for his audience, that permitted Shaw to satirise the horrors of war and romantic love which, then, because of the play's controversial attitude to the romantification of war was, probably, enough of a shock-of-the-new (how dare he? isn't it bold?) for it, a production of it, to be appreciated and made triumphant. Apparently, on the Opening night, when Shaw stepped before the curtain to take his demanded bow he observed a patron giving a loud 'Boo!' "My dear fellow', he exclaimed, "I quite agree with you, but what are we against so many?" Shaw in a letter to Henry Arthur Jones, another writer (playwright) of the period - one I think, oddly neglected - confessed some eight months later that he knew the whole affair was 'a ghastly failure'.

Today, this play's then controversial content is not outrageous enough to encourage laughter at its audacity, as it was probably then - for it is no longer audacious, it is mostly a familiar observation about the stupidity of war, if not, habit-wise a fully ingested one - war, war wherever we look. Still! This comedy is essentially, now, a romantic comedy. One about a "Chocolate" soldier, a "fantastic" soldier, and an in-training 'soldier' of the marriage game, a "sexy" young woman , who with her getting of wisdom, learns to employ the ammunition of the romantic stakes of flirtation as tactic for victory. It is a tale from the nursery, a fairy tale, a folk tale, a family entertainment, a pantomime, a kind of Punch-and-Judy show, now.

So, in the Drama Theatre the Sydney Theatre Company give us, under the guidance of Director, Richard Cotterell – a silly – and in the Designs of Michael Scott-Mitchell (Set) and Julie Lynch (Costumes) – a 'pretty', nay, an extravagantly 'pretty' – production of a contemporaneously boring play. It is no fault of Mr Cotterell's to be sure, he does the best he can. It is rather the curating of THIS Shaw play in 2015, by Artistic Director, Andrew Upton and his advisors, that is at fault. As I have indicated, if you are wanting to present a Shaw Play there are many to choose from, and as you can tell, this is one that I can hardly understand, or justify a reason for it to be put on at all, in our day and age, by a professional theatre company. Is it the economy of a small cast - 8 players, only - that facilitated its presentation? Its showing certainly does not bolster the reputation of Mr Shaw as an important and wittily relevant artist - which, as we recently witnessed with the National Theatre (UK) Broadcast of MAN AND SUPERMAN (starring Ralph Fiennes), is an undoubted fact. Why not curate that amazing play, and with a good production, enhance and do justice to Mr Shaw's reputation. I take personal umbrage that G.B. Shaw's reputation as a pertinent and 'contemporary' playwright is being traduced by the presentation of such a dated and therefore 'silly' example of his work. The artistic leaders of the Sydney Theatre Company ought to know better, don't you think?

Mitchell Butel, as Captain Bluntschli, gave an immaculately clock-work low comedy vaudeville turn of great charm. Andrea Demetriades, as Raina Petkoff, gave an,oddly" (knowing her usual incisive instinctual approach to text) a 'too modern' TV- sitcom edge to her responsibilities, but, thankfully, still, with her usual winning charms. While Charlie Cousins, as Major Sergius Saranoff, was more than a little out of his depth, especially with the absence of a vocal instrument, it having, here, little range and/or flexibility for the musical demands of Mr Shaw's writing and comic élan. He never appeared to be on top of the requirements of the stylistic demands of the writing, always, seemingly, anxiously striving for it. Shaw demands artists with all their skills primed, if not over-primed, for their responsibilities and 'duties'.

There was knowing and stalwart support from veterans of this kind of work and style from William Zappa, as Major Paul Petkoff, and Deborah Kennedy, as the cunning 'war veteran' of the marriage game strategies, Catherine Petkoff. The sub-plot, where most of the comic and assiduous class politics of Shaw is posited, was expedited by Brandon Burke, as Nikola and Olivia Rose, as Louka in a fairly muted manner - it lacked edge, punch, wit.

All in all, this ARMS AND THE MAN, was exceedingly silly, extravagantly 'pretty', and arduously, intellectually dull to sit through. Though, there was enough vaudeville to gain a chuckle or two, or three - appropriate to Shaw, or not.

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