Thursday, August 8, 2013

'Major Barbara' Abbey Theatre play review, August 2013

First up, well done to the Abbey on all their recent innovative Twitter marketing, including their generous giveaways, of which yours truly was a recipient, getting a nice pair of free 4th row seats for one of the previews.

So, off we trundled to Abbey Street last Friday, myself and herself, with no particular expectations. I'm an admirer of George Bernard Shaw's life, wit, writings and much of his philosophy, but I think I've only ever seen one of his plays before (Pygmalion). I know the Gate theatre did Mrs Warren's Profession earlier this year, but generally his plays haven't really been performed that much here in Shaw's home country over the years. Is that because his worldview didn't chime with that of independent Ireland, or because his work had an Anglo hue to it? I don't really know. What I do know though, is that some of the themes of Major Barbara are still very relevant today, and this was an entertaining thought provoking play from start to finish, expertly produced by the national theatre.

Where to start? There is so much in it! It's a long, complicated play, in 3 Acts (almost 4). A huge amount of dialogue for the cast, and for a preview there were surprisingly few slip-ups, just a few words here and there. And not only is there a lot of dialogue, but the sentences are long and the language ornate, beautiful and slightly old-fashioned, with the wit of Oscar Wilde yet the seriousness of the deeper thinker that was Shaw. So, an impressive performance from the cast. Strongest was probably Eleanor Methven as Lady Britomart, closely followed by impressive newcomer (at this level) Clare Dunne in the title role and bringing a bit of TV and big screen glamour to the Dublin stage, Paul McGann as Mr Undershaft. He's technically very good, but like most of the cast, we could see he was possibly still finding his way in to the role at preview stage, not surprising for what is a fairly difficult play.

The cast, direction and production cleverly brought out both the humour and the themes of the play. What came through most was the theme of charity and how it can be corrupted by big money, particularly big money of dubious origin. We saw the title character wrestle with this time and time again, and the contrasting attitude of her father. I won't spoil the plot of the play, but suffice to say this wrestling for Barbara becomes more and more pronounced as Shaw explores the complicated nature of family, money, inheritance, guilt and the various moralities of war and charity. Much of the humour came from the Lady Britomart character, and the actresses' perfect delivery had a lot to do with this.

Final word goes to the really excellent production. The three different stage set-ups all worked prefectly, especially the classic drawing room set-up and the nice device they use when it switches to the factory.

So, kudos to the Abbey for reviving this thought-provoking play, and even bigger kudos for giving away so many free tickets to the previews. They were much appreciated!

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