This is a bumper week for George Bernard Shaw (GBS) fans in Richmond. Over at the Richmond Theatre, Mrs Warren’s Profession is playing to packed houses and last night the Orange Tree, a hundred yards down the road, had its press night for Shaw’s romantic comedy come satire on the war of 1894, Arms and the Man. Both are excellent. They bring Shaw alive and demonstrate how prescient, topical and relevant he remains. Take this wonderful opportunity to see two of Shaw’s finest plays in top-notch productions.
Director Paul Miller has made a name for himself as our finest interpreter of Shaw’s early work. Starting in 2014 he has directed eight works by Shaw; Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer, Misalliance, Candida, Overruled, How He Lied to Her Husband and Arms and the Man. This will be his last production as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree. Let’s hope he comes back to direct more of these Shaw gems in the years to come. His love of these plays shines through in this absolutely outstanding production of Arms and the Man. Everything about this Shaw show screams top draw. The casting is so strong (Sarah Murray clearly has a perfect eye ) that there isn’t a weak player in the team. All seven actors are spellbinding. They are ridiculously good. The chemistry between them is palpable. Every actor looks like the character they are playing, their physique, clothes, accent, and body language all fit together to make a totally convincing recreation of Bulgaria circa 1890.
The set designer Simon Daw has done a fantastic job of providing just enough furniture to suggest an interior leaving our imagination to fill in the blanks. The Orthodox icon, the bed, the shisha pipe and the clothesline are good examples of what I mean. Each item triggers a whole visual world in our imaginations. Really well done. Crucial to the success of the show are Natalie Alvarez’s stunning costumes. Each character is given at least one item of clothing or a prop that really brings home her/his identity. A sword, a medal, a coat, a hat or a bell. This production reminds us of just how central clothes are. We rightly focus much of our attention on language but clothes are the cinderella of drama. Undervalued and underestimated clothes help define who we are.
Arms and the Man is both a romantic comedy and a satire on the absurdities of war. Both plots interweave to create a comic farce that is part Fawlty Towers and part Dad’s Army. It’s a topsy-turvy world in which conventional assumptions are overturned and new opportunities are opened up. Let’s start with the romantic aspects. Raina (Rebecca Collingwood) is the 23-year-old daughter of Major Petkoff the head of the wealthiest family in Bulgaria. Her head is full of Byron and Pushkin. She is to marry Cavalry Officer Sergius (Alex Bhat) who is away fighting the Serbians. So far so conventional. The first topsy moment is when Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann) a soldier in the Serbian army enters her bedroom. He is funny and intelligent and tells her that he keeps food not bullets in his pockets. She offers him chocolates filled with cream. Thereafter he becomes her chocolate cream soldier. She hides him from the Bulgarian army. So her patriotic values have been undermined by her love for a young man.
Sergius returns from the front to see Raina. A cross between Basil Fawlty and Borat, he is laugh-out-loud funny. Like John Cleese, he excels at physical comedy. With his sword, moustache and long legs in white tights, he is visually very very funny. His comic physical presence and catchphrases (“I never withdraw”, pun intended) make his every move and gesture a cause for laughter. As he himself says “my every thought is mocked by my every action“. The house servants Nicola (Jonah Russell) and Louka (Kemi Awoderu) excel as the scheming below-stairs couple who know more than their so-called betters.
The second theme of the play, the absurdities of war is brilliantly done. Jonathan Tafler as Major Petkoff is Captain Manneringesque in his pomposity. A short man, laden with medals and a huge black coat he is every inch the bumbling major. But it is Bluntschli who most obviously expresses the absurdity of war message. He sends up the romantic twaddle about a cavalry charge. Arms and the Man is, like the Good Soldier Svejk, a send-up of war in all its ridiculousness. In the character of Bluntschli, Shaw has created a voice for all of his beliefs about love, war, monarchies, empires and nations.
Indeed we can say that of Shaw too. A man who wrote more than 60 plays, was awarded the noble prize for literature in 1925, he was a member the Fabian Society and a founder of both the London School of Economics and the New Statesman, a member of St Pancras Borough Council, a vegetarian and a supporter of spelling reform. A remarkable man who lived a remarkable life. From his birth in Dublin in 1856 to his death aged 94 at his home Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire aptly enough two miles from Welwyn Garden City another of his projects. He was cremated at Golders Green Cemetery on 6th November 1950. Making a point in death as in life.
Review by John O’Brien
What glory is there in killing wretched fugitives?
In the midst of a bloody central European war, a chance moonlit encounter throws together an idealistic young woman and a Swiss mercenary with an unexpectedly realistic attitude to soldiering.
Raina’s youthful love for Sergius, the swashbuckling fighting hero of the Bulgarian army, is challenged when she learns more of the realities of war. Bluntschli’s coolly ironic good sense starts to seem more like the future.
When Louka, the servant of the family with a spirit and ambition all of her own, sets her sights on Sergius, the stage is set for an epic moral battle.
Shaw’s delightful romantic comedy was one of his first commercial successes and remains enduringly relevant.
ARMS AND THE MAN
by BERNARD SHAW
19 November 2022 – 14 January 2023