Posts Tagged ‘george bernard shaw’

Review – Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse

December 20, 2016

These days it’s so hard to get a ticket for a show at the Donmar that I go for entire seasons without seeing a single thing. I was a bit sad, then, when I saw the promo posters for Saint Joan – a play I’d never heard of (and certainly not seen) by George Bernard Shaw, one of my favorite playwrights – and realized that unless the gods smiled very favorably upon me, there was little chance of me getting to go. And yet, there I was, the Friday before Christmas (well, close enough), rather stuffed full of panto, and there was …. not just a crummy standing seat … but a juicy front row center ticket that would be all mine if I’d just fork over the full price of forty quid. Well. That’s at the top end of what I’m willing to spend for everything, but you could hardly ask for anything better. In fact, I wound up feeling a bit like Santa had come by for an early visit. Religious fanaticism and being burned at the stake? Ho ho ho!

So … this is going to be slightly different review from my normal “I had no idea what was going to happen and this is what I experienced” write up … instead, I’m going to look at this play through the lens of someone who is a fan of Shaw, and who has seen both Shakespeare’s version of Joan of Arc as well as Theo Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Briefly, though, the play is given a very modern setting, as the meetings that would normally have taken place at castles or abbeys are instead held around boardroom tables by men in suits (although Joan, oddly enough, appears in Gothic garb). It’s a very effective touch, because what these people are is, really, decision makers, and I found it easy to swallow the ridiculous (miracles and religion) when framed in such an every day context.

Joan as a character needs to carry a lot. Is she an evil witch? The Brits think so (and may have truly believed so in Shakespeare’s time), but Shaw is too much of a realist to go down this path. Is she inspirational? That’s the core of Shaw’s portrayal, and Gemma Arterton embraces that, like a one-woman life coach for the entire French army, seen here coaxing the Dauphin and Archbishop as well as military men with a combination of emotion, religion, touch, humanity, and vision. She seems a dream leader … but Shaw pulls us back to the ground. In a masterful scene – typically Shaw because he’s basically speechifying at us – the English contingent reminds us about the dangers of both nationalism and religious fanaticism. Or, rather, I think Shaw is trying to remind us of where things are going to go historically … but what I heard was a voice from the past warning us that the route to fascism and religious intolerance were often hidden beneath the guise of popularity and “being inspiring.” So here’s Joan … telling people to die in the name of God and encouraging divides based on national origin. Suddenly with that filter it all seems a little more creepy.

Playing a crazed teenager who’s able to rouse a nation to war is doubtlessly not easy. Arterton has the look of someone who can see God, but I felt her sense of betrayal at the end wasn’t as convincing as it should have been (despite the nicely conjured tears). The key role of the Dauphin was also just too weak and wiggly to be convincing. Still, the power players in the rest of the cast – the religious court that sits in judgment in the second act, and the French courtiers – seem strong enough to carry the rest of the play. Overall, it was a good night, and from my front row center seat my interest never flagged. (The gentleman next to me dozed off, however, so caveat emptor.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 16, 2016. It continues through February 18th.)

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Mini-review – Man and Superman – National Theatre

March 16, 2015

WARNING: There’s some kind of famous actor in this show and this means that it is massively sold out. However, this is not why I wanted to go, to see yet another stage star polishing his chops at our expense (my expense being 38 quid, an unsupportable price level for my budget): no, I wanted to go because I really, really like George Bernard Shaw and had never had a chance to see this play before.

So: you’re considering seeing this play, and, as a Life in the Cheap Seats devotee, you have one question: is it worth it? Cheap seats are £38 (technically £15 but no chance of finding one of those), time investment (far more important) is 3 1/2 hours. My God. That is a very, very long time to be sat down in a chair. Don’t drink anything beforehand (or during the interval – but do have a bottle of water with you) and I highly advise a small package of chocolate or possibly Mentos.

But, God, you know what? It’s funny. It’s really funny. The story of an anarchist fighting to escape from the love of a conventional (and highly manipulative) woman just seems on the face of it to have no hope as a comedy at all. The anarchist’s obsession with “woman’s highest purpose” – having babies – seems on the face of it to just be so offensive that you can only see him as a villain. But somehow the combination of all of the videos of flowers blooming (in the background) and the scraps of music from Don Giovanni give the whole enterprise this air of the irresistibility of sex (defined as the “reproductive impulse”). Our anarchist is a man who wants to stick with his morals – honesty and truthfulness held highly among them – and, faced with a woman who wants to be loved for who she is (rather than who she pretends to be), he is simply incapable of clinging to the high ground – that is, remaining a bachelor and practitioner of “free love.”

Most delicious and delightful is an extended scene set in hell, with the main actors reappearing as various characters from Don Giovanni (and, well, Lucifer). Now, if they were trying to keep this play down to a reasonable amount of time, this would have been the scene to cut: but, really, it about had me in tears with its endless flagellation of the hypocrisy of society (both ancient and modern, things just haven’t changed). What was that quote? Ah yes, loved this bit: “At every one of those concerts in England you will find rows of weary people who are there, not because they really like classical music, but because they think they ought to like it. Well, there is the same thing in heaven. A number of people sit there in glory, not because they are happy, but because they think they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English.” PEALS OF LAUGHER. And, I thought, rows and rows of just these folks were sitting there at the National on this chilly afternoon, only we all were laughing, because, by God (and the devil), this is a funny play, and it hardly matters what name actors are in it (I’m not even going to mention them, they’re all very good): suffice it for me to tell you it WAS good and it was worth forty pounds, buy your Mentos at a nearby cornershop and go see it. Your life will be the richer for having done so.

(This review is for a matinee that took place on Saturday, March 14, 2015. It continues for a while but as it is sold out your best chance of getting tickets is just to leave the page open on your computer screen throughout the day and occasionally hit F5 to see if there have been any returns.)