John Russell Taylor in outer London
22 May 2021
The other day I was watching one of those Rediscovering programmes on Sky Arts. This one concerned Claude Rains, and featured prominently the 1945 film of Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Rains played Caesar to Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra. The expert panel loved the acting but didn’t think much of the movie. The trouble, they said, was a feeble script. l was struck by the fact that the name of George Bernard Shaw was never mentioned, given that when the film came out his was the most important name associated with it. Perhaps it is time that Shaw himself was rediscovered.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Joe Bolland. Image credit: The Other Richard.
Of course then, just after the war, his was a leading name in theatre in Britain, perhaps second only to Shakespeare’s. But these days you have to look a lot harder to find him on a stage. One place he is at is the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, which has chosen after lockdown to reopen with ‘Shaw Shorts’; a double bill of Shaw one-acters, How He Lied to Her Husband (1904) and Overruled (1912). The two plays go surprisingly well together, both being concerned, in Shaw’s typically witty, irreverent way, with such sacred cows of Anglo-Saxon life as marital ﬁdelity and class relations.
An interesting choice indeed, and very apt to the present situation of live theatre in that both plays have small casts, three in the ﬁrst, four in the second, and lend themselves to staging in the round with minimal sets and props, as well as, alas, minimal, masked audiences. In any case, this production makes one reﬂect on something I had really not thought much about BC (Before Covid): what do we think of Shaw as a dramatist these days?
As l have a long theatrical memory, I well remember the day when Shaw revivals were about as frequent in the West End theatre, not to mention the major subsidized theatres, as Oscar Wilde, and treated with as much respect. But now l think about it, even before Covid, Shaw had gradually faded from the repertory with the exception of a few plays like Pygmalion and Saint Joan. However, one venue that has staged him regularly recently is the Orange Tree, where he has been championed by Paul Miller since he took over as artistic director in 2014 with well-received productions of Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer, Misalliance, and Candida. Now Miller has turned his attention to two lesser-known Shaw plays.
Jordan Mifsúd, Hara Yannas, Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Alex Bhat.
Image credit: The Other Richard.
How He Lied to Her Husband features a wife who has carelessly mislaid a bundle of manuscript poems written in honour of (and desire for) her by a would-be but not-quite lover. What will the husband make of them? Will scandal ensue? The surprise is that the husband is offended when the poet denies they were written in total adoration of his wife, but is delighted when it emerges that she can inspire such passionate devotion in yet another man.
Overruled deals with a similar theme in a slightly different way. Gregory is, or thinks he is, so passionately in love with Mrs Juno that he wants her to run off with him and marry him immediately — or at least as soon as he has managed to dispose of the wife she does not know about. An additional complication that he doesn’t know about is that she is not the available widow he thinks, but deeply devoted to her husband, though by no means averse to some more devotion on the side. What then will happen when Gregory meets her husband Sibthorpe and she meets Gregory’s wife?
I suppose that would be telling, so I won’t. One might perhaps wish that Rattigan had ﬁnished the play, with Gregory and wish that Rattigan had ﬁnished the play, with Gregory and Sibthorpe riding off together into a gay sunset, but what Shaw has devised does very well. There is, of course, no denying that as Shaw goes these are very slight pieces, but if you consider that they may here be introducing new audiences to Shaw, they offer a very jolly starting point. Even if Miller’s production of Overruled, the second part of an evening, seems to go on a bit too long — Shaw’s fault, I think, not his.
The whole cast live up to their task very well. In a way the female parts are easier, as Shaw clearly has much more respect for women’s abilities to deal with emotional complications than for men’s: in both plays the women are the ones able to cut ruthlessly through to the essentials, while the men flounder around with moral ambiguities and undertakings they have made to their dead mothers. Dorothea Myer-Bennett effortlessly dominates both plays as the one who knows most clearly what she wants and how to get it, but Hara Yannas as the seemingly more tentative wife also proves to have feminine wiles at her beck and call.