This year the Shaw Festival offers two plays by the playwright after whom it is named, Village Wooing and The Apple Cart, and both receive superb productions. You may see the short Village Woong at 11:30 in the morning and the full-length Apple Cart in the afternoon and enjoy splendid theatre.
Shaw subtitled The Apple Cart “A political extravaganza” and so it is. The central figure of the play is King Magnus of England (Tom Rooney) who must deal with a rebellious cabinet that wants to demote him, an ambitious mistress who wants to become queen and an American ambassador who proposes to unite England and the United States and forget the the Declaration of Independence and all that. Magnus deals with these crises with intelligence, diplomacy and a debonair style that defeats his opponents and entertains the audience with extraordinary performances, especially Rooney’s.
His first encounter is with Billy Boanerges (Martin Happer), a crude, working class labour leader, recently elected to Parliament and been made a new cabinet minister. With a red hat and working-class clothes Boanerges is self-assured and aggressive and Martin Happer handles the mannerisms and accent of the man superbly.
The encounter with Boanerges is merely a warmup for Magnus’s meeting with Prime Minister Proteus (Graeme Somerville) and his cabinet. In matching suits and bowlers, the ministers pride themselves on being the elected people who run the country. They are having a problem with the king who overreaches his powers, they think, by vetoing legislation and talking to the public over their heads. They have an ultimatum demanding that His Majesty cease and desist or else!
The cabinet are a querulous bunch who bicker among themselves with accusations of corruption, nepotism and incompetence. They have heavy-duty Roman names such as Crassus (Neil Barclay), the Colonial Secretary, Pliny (Kelly Wong), the Chancellor of the Exchequer), Nicobar (Travis Seetoo), the Foreign Secretary, Balbus (Richard Lam) the Colonia Secretary, Lysistrata (Sharry Flett), Powermistress General, Amanda (Rebecca Northan), Postmistress General. They are an argumentative, dysfunctional bunch who give democracy a bad name. But they make bloody good theatre.
The play has an “interlude” where Magnus sees his mistress Orinthia. After the king, Orinthia is probably the best role is the play. Sochi Fried plays an attractive, sexually magnetic, assertive, intelligent and ambitious Orinthia who wants Magnus to dump Queen Jemima (Bahareh Yaraghi) and make her his consort. We get some magnificent acting and a marvelous scene as Orinthia goes on the offensive with all her artillery.
Magnus still has the battle with the cabinet to fight but he has to deal with the overenthusiastic U.S. Ambassador Vanhattan (Andre Morin) who offers the re-union of the U.S. with the British Empire. A tantalizing idea that Magnus must stick handle with his usual intelligence, diplomacy and aplomb.
The final confrontation with the cabinet arrives and the ever-inventive Magnus summons all his resources and you should see and enjoy the play to find out the outcome.
The play is done in the theatre-in-the-round Jackie Maxwell Studio and the set and costumes are by Sophie Bowden. White attire for the king and Queen Jemima, somber suits for the men in the cabinet. Orinthia gets a sensual turquoise robe that she uses as if she were a Homeric siren trying to seduce Odysseus. Magnus, like Odysseus, is no fool to fall for it.
The all-white set consists of some chairs and tables that are easily moved around. It is more a mythical setting rather than any any attempt to suggest a palatial setting where the action is supposed take place.
Director Eda Holmes does outstanding work in handling the intelligent and diplomatic king, the numerous egos and arguments of the play and maintaining a brisk pace where necessary and and a thoroughly enjoyable production throughout.
Village Wooing is a one-act playlet by Shaw that you can see at 11:30 on select dates and it is simply a gem of a production. Shaw wrote it in 1933 and described it as a “commediatina for two voices in three conversations. The voices are those of a man simply described as A and a woman called Z. The conversations take place on the deck of the luxury liner Empress, in a village shop and post office in rural England where Z works and A goes to purchase some items. The third conversation takes place in the same shop that has been purchased by A and Z continues to work there.
That tells you very little about the wonderful performances by David Adams as A and Donna Soares as Z. A is a writer of travel books and is content to be left alone in his lounge chair making notes. Z wants to talk to him and she razzes him into a conversation. Shaw gave them some good lines but Adams and Soares raised them to wonderful comedy. Soares is charmingly pushy, determined and wonderful. Adams tries to resist her but he is outgunned by her persistence and humour.
In the second conversation they meet in a village shop and post office. He does not recall ever seeing her, he claims, and again we have a wonderful repartee and humour. In the third conversation, the dynamics have changed because he is her employer but the wonderful atmosphere of the play is maintained.
Village Wooing is written for two characters. The programme lists six actors, which means that there are three couples in various configurations on the stage. Why six actors for a two-hander is a question to be asked and the answer may be that someone felt like it. My complaint is not about that but about the fact that the other four actors were on stage most of the time. They were moving props that did not need to be moved, they stood in the wings and peered from behind the store shelves. They had no business being there and the politest thing I can say is that they were annoying. Their presence was not enough to ruin the production. The programme has photographs of all the actors and shows possible couplings for their performances.
Director Selma Dimitrijevic kept the timing, the pace, the physical movements and the atmosphere of the production under wonderful control for a delightful one-hour production.
The Apple Cart and Village Wooing by Berbard Shaw continue until October 7, 2023, at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre and the Royal George Theatre respectively at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.