Theatre directors don’t always have to relocate or dislocate classic plays to make them seem fresh. Jackie Maxwell’s production of Major Barbara has one good idea and that’s all it takes: She’s decided that the title character is, indeed, the main character and successfully re-centres this comedy of ideas around her, instead of letting her be blasted to the background by her devilishly charming father.
Borrowing an idea from Bernard Shaw’s 1941 screen adaptation of his 1905 play, Maxwell restructures the proceedings so that they open with Barbara Undershaft (Nicole Underhay) preaching against poverty in her Salvation Army uniform. Underhay, an actress with a name that sounds Shavian in itself, greets the audience, her blue eyes burning with fervour, bringing the passion of the play immediately front and centre.
Only afterward do we discover Barbara’s less-than-austere background. She’s one of three children raised by well-to-do single mother Lady Britomart (a very funny Laurie Paton), who is now pondering the question of how to provide a stable income to her adult children.
Lady Britomart is estranged from her husband, a rich and unashamed munitions manufacturer named Andrew Undershaft (Benedict Campbell), but these money matters have precipitated their reunion and his introduction to his grown children. Undershaft finds himself particularly smitten with Barbara, who seems to have inherited his flourish for rhetoric, but uses it for different purposes (or so it seems). “I am rather interested in the Salvation Army – its motto might be my own: Blood and Fire,” he says slyly.
Mutually intrigued, the two arrange an impromptu bring-your-father/daughter-to-work day that takes up the rest of the play: Undershaft will visit the Salvation Army, if in exchange Barbara will take a trip to his munitions factory.
If you’re at all familiar with Shaw’s contrarian sensibility, it will be no surprise who converts who to whose cause – but the debate-filled path there provides ample intellectual entertainment for those who enjoy the Munk Debates but only wish there were more Cockney street urchins in them.
During the visit to the Salvation Army mission – decidedly busier than the one in Guys and Dolls, playing elsewhere at the Shaw Festival – we get to see Barbara in action as a street-corner preacher. After Undershaft makes a donation that mission superiors pragmatically take, however, Barbara becomes disillusioned – and Underhay’s performance makes the hurt and confusion that accompany this palpable.
“You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something,” says Undershaft. Maxwell’s focus on Barbara’s sense of loss and need to find something to cling to next provides the play with a neat emotional framework even as Undershaft’s speechifying and his silly search for a successor who is a “foundling” begin to dominate. Campbell, in his second time in the role, takes a surprisingly sensitive and measured approach to the part, until his final moments when he thunders marvellously.
In the supporting cast, the men stand out the most – whether Graeme Somerville as Barbara’s witty, smitten fiancé, a professor of Greek whom Undershaft dubs Euripides; or Ben Sanders’s wounded Stephen Undershaft, a John Cleese doppelganger who hates his father even as he yearns for his attention.
With the exception of some over-the-top urchins in the Salvation Army, Maxwell is generally good at restraining the Shaw company members who are otherwise prone to histrionics when left to their own devices. She finds room in her less-is-more approach for a few subtly theatrical touches, however. I loved the way Paton’s very amusing Britomart carries around a cushion from her couch wherever she goes, a decision that went beyond cute to communicate something of the character’s understandable anxieties.
This is not a showy Major Barbara, but a human-sized one that fascinates most of the way through.