The Shaw Festival's 50th-anniversary season opens with Heartbreak House directed by artistic director emeritus Christopher Newton. Newton, who ran the theatre festival from 1980 to 2002, has tackled the play considered by many to be Bernard Shaw's masterpiece twice before in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.: as an actor in 1964; and as a director in 1985.Newton, who turns 75 next month, spoke to The Globe about his three Heartbreak Houses and how he learned to stop worrying and love Shaw - both the festival and the playwright.
As a young actor in Toronto, it seemed a little silly that there was a Shaw Festival. None of us thought it would last, particularly. I was very surprised when I got asked to come down and to play a part in Heartbreak House - Hector Hushabye - that was too old for me. But, you know, when one's young, one accepts anything if anybody wants you.
The experience wasn't very stimulating. We had a director, Andrew Allan, who didn't direct all afternoon. Around about 4:30, he'd be off to the Prince of Wales Hotel. This little group of slightly more keen actors would get together and rehearse during that hour and a half that Allan was having a cocktail.
Everything was in the Court House Theatre at the time: Flat floor, little stage, no air conditioning. It was fiendishly hot.
We didn't know what we were saying - at least I didn't know. I just went on and made noises. That sounds awful, but you could get away with making noises in those days as an actor because there weren't too many actors. And there certainly weren't very many good directors around to say, "What on earth are you doing?"
Niagara-on-the-Lake was a lost little town. In the late 1950s, the steamer stopped coming in from Toronto and everybody kind of retired. The Prince of Wales was there, but it had fallen on hard times - in fact, apprentices at the festival were put up there, it was so cheap.
It was a pleasurable experience socially, but artistically, it really didn't mean anything.
Nineteen-eighty was my first season as artistic director. I wasn't terribly interested in the job to begin with. I said no a couple of times. And then I came and visited and looked at what was going on here. Then I realized that the Shaw Festival represented perhaps the only challenge that the Stratford Festival might ever have. There was the opportunity of creating a really important acting company here.
I hadn't really liked Bernard Shaw very much. I made no secret of that fact.
When I directed my first Shaw piece, Misalliance, the penny dropped, if you like. What I'd hated was the way these Shaw plays had been done that I'd seen, or even been in. When I actually got my hands on one to direct, I found it incredibly rich and fascinating. It wasn't a series of little debates. It was much more dense than that and much more complicated and peculiar. I talk about Shaw as a surrealist and he really is: realism extended and pushed to the edges. It begins to become dreamlike.
In 1985, we decided to do Heartbreak House. By that time, I was able to put together an absolutely first-rate company to have a go at it - Douglas Rain, Marti Maraden, Goldie Semple, Fiona Reid, Norman Browning, Allan Gray, Andrew Gillies, Jennifer Phipps - and, of course, Peter Krantz who had come in as an apprentice. I had a great designer - Michael Levine, very young, very exciting. It was all systems go.
Heartbreak House's plot is very simple: Hesione Hushabye has invited to a party somebody she doesn't really know very well, a girl who is engaged to a multimillionaire 40 years older than her because her father is poor. Hesione is determined to break up the engagement.
In the last 10 minutes of the play, war breaks out.
The first theme of the engagement seems to take up most of Heartbreak House, but if you go back through it there are threads of dissatisfaction, of things going wrong, that I suppose culminate in the last 10 minutes, when the bombs begin to fall. It's really about English society going blindly into the war - and not particularly likeable people who weren't looking at the larger picture.
In 1985, I was interested in desire. This time, I've gone back to being interested in the idea of war. Heartbreak House was written in a very odd time: Shaw started it before the First World War and didn't finish it until 1917 and then it wasn't performed until after the war. It must have been a very dangerous play for Shaw to write, because he was so disliked during the war because of his pamphlet Common Sense About the War. He was regarded as a sort of traitor by many people, which he wasn't at all.
It's a bit nerve-wracking to open the 50th-anniversary season. There's a bit of pressure to try and do something. It's very nice of them to give me this chance to look at it again. It's always very good to go back to plays: You can correct some of the things you didn't get right the first time.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Heartbreak House opens on May 25 and runs until Oct. 7 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.