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Arms and the Man (first performed in 1894) is an early and buoyant work of Shaw’s, mercifully short compared to some of the later heavyweight plays. First performed in 1894, its Balkan setting and anti-war thrust have a special pertinence today. For all his famously detailed stage directions and character notes, which read like novels, the plays serve up some problems when it comes to performance and are in danger of deflating like hot-air balloons if certain procedures are not followed. A Shavian adherent would argue that this would not happen if the author’s instructions were faithfully carried out; but directors and actors are justly determined to cast aside hundred-year old strait-jackets. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a choice with Shaw. His plays aren’t organically constructed. There is nothing elliptical about them and no theatrical ambivalence to exploit: the dialogue leaves nothing to chance. It is more like conversation in a book, and relies totally on the actors’ skill to make us believe a real person is speaking. Unlike his contemporary, Wilde, he doesn’t write lines that have to be said straight in order to work. Embellish already gilded Wilde at your peril, but at all costs colour Shavian wit and narrative in the shades the author’s given you and do so with élan.
One of the alarming things about the rising Timothy Sheader’s disappointing production is his reliance on physical humour and laboured bits of business to get the laughs. What is the point of all Shaw’s witty lines and playful conceits? The actors ignore them. They are a perversely cast group. At first sight and sound there’s no distinction between romantic Raina and Louka, the girl with a soul above her station, and none between the two soldiers, the would-be Byronic hero and the business-like tactician. Rachel Ferjani’s confident and constantly wriggling Raina has not an atom of romance or poetic yearning in her. Yes, Raina is calculating to the point that she listens at doors to time her entrances to maximum effect, but at the dream-like opening to the play she believes in her romantic vision of the world, and we have to believe in her. This Raina is never truly delighted by the romantic adventures that suddenly befall her; she never assumes the thrilling voice remarked on by Bluntschli or carefully studied expressions of noble emotions, and doesn’t give us a glimpse of Raina’s redeeming sense of humour. She and Sergius (Sam Callis) should charm and delight us in the absurdity of their operatic affectations. Instead, she’s an irritating spoilt minx and he’s just plain dull. There is no sign on the stage of Shaw’s narcissistic comic creation. He is interchangeable with Barnaby Kay’s Bluntschli; Shaw’s confection of the chocolate cream soldier is turned to mush.
Mali Harries turns Louka’s passionate rebelliousness into pettishness. Her calls for equality spring entirely from selfishness rather than reforming ardour. Shaw’s characters are inescapably mouthpieces for his ideas, and they have to be played with generosity of spirit and intimations of intellect if the ideas are to be taken seriously. Instead, we watch a rather dreary but more than usually gaudily dressed middle-class sit-com. Gwen Taylor and Duncan Preston fit cosily into this rendering, as a cheerfully likeable mum and dad, minus Catherine’s fierce mountain farmer’s stock pride and Petkoff’s ingenuous simplicity, and have some fun with Catherine’s social pretensions.
Everywhere, the sharpness of Shaw’s observations of character and social status is blurred. The twin lights of comedy and polemic are never ignited. Everything merges into the dense purple background of Robert Jones’s set. But it would be unfair to omit a qualifying statement. I may have watched unamused and unmoved, but for the majority of the audience Sheader and his cast were doing something right. Or maybe the play won through more than I thought. The audience was delighted with it, and to entertain, after all, is the main purpose and justification of theatre. How much more satisfying, then, if the Touring Partnership were to bring greater and better revivals to such eager audiences in the future.
C J Sheridan © October 2003
Originally published on R&V 02-10-03
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