The two plays that won The Shaw Society’s playwriting award for 2018 (well, one winner and one runner-up, but the audience is treated to both in any event) took the aftermath of a certain referendum (yes, that one) as their backdrops, approaching a very contemporary issue from considerably different angles. They are effectively responses to On The Rocks, a political comedy by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Some details about that play for the uninitiated were kindly provided by Dr Anne Wright CBE, and it was interesting to note in those opening remarks how little has changed in some respects. I have no idea how long political spin has been breezing through Whitehall, but there were vacuous promises made by political leaders in Shaw’s day (On The Rocks having premiered in 1933) as there are now.
As the performances were read-throughs (or, to use The Shaw Society’s wording, ‘concert readings’), and not productions, a star rating is not given. It was good to hear some thoughtful and witty writing, though much of it is best understood by people living here and now – at the risk of sounding unkind, the plays may not have the longevity of Shaw’s works. That is not because the quality of the writing is deficient (it isn’t), but because of the sheer number of references to current affairs, currently well-known personalities, and current figures of speech.
I hope I’m wrong on that point – after all, one of the reasons why certain Shakespeare plays are a little difficult for a first-timer to get their head around is because they are guilty (for want of a better word) of being full of observations and witticisms that would have been understood by audiences at the time, but not so much now. While some in the audience may have felt it would have been good to respond to On The Rocks with at least some reference to the Trump Administration, the context of Shaw’s play makes Brexit highly apt. In Divorce On The Rocks and On The Rack, as in On The Rocks, it is Europe that is at the forefront of the characters’ minds.
A subtle and very British sense of humour permeates Divorce On The Rocks, as Sir Noah Chavender (Will Birch), a descendant of Sir Arthur Chavender, the Liberal Prime Minister of Shaw’s play, grapples with exiting the European Union and its consequences. Just as I thought this play was putting its foot down and making a case either for or against leaving, alternative views are expressed, with varying degrees of credibility (dependent, of course, on one’s own point of view).
Such a well-considered and reasoned discussion, even for dramatic purposes, was really rather refreshing, compared to most debates on the subject, which don’t seem to last very long without its participants resorting to personal remarks.
There are ways, therefore, to engage an audience on such a polarising hot topic without exhausting shouting matches. In both plays, the character development is very much evident. On The Rack introduces a character named only in the cast list as Stranger (Chris Bearne), who could well be, ahem, a certain Irish playwright from a previous generation, or, as the man himself puts it to Sir Henry Challenger (Will Birch), a “figment of your diseased imagination”. What is real and what are mere illusions, or even delusions, is explored quite beautifully, with wide-ranging implications.
A wholly satisfying evening of intelligent writing. The awards given to Michael Sherborne (Divorce on the Rocks) and R A Diamond (On The Rack) are thoroughly deserved.
By Chris Omaweng
‘Divorce On The Rocks’ by Michael Sherbourne
Directed by Jon Bradshaw
Featuring Will Birch, Maryann O’Brien, Matthew Curnier and Chris Bearne
‘On The Rack’ by Ray Diamond
Directed by Jonas Cemm
Featuring Will Birch, Shonni Doulton and Chris Bearne
Both plays were narrated by SHAW 2020 artistic director Jonas Cemm