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Theatre Reviews Review: Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, there was George Bernard Shaw’s Napoleon

Krystal Kiran and Shawn Ahmed in How He Lied to Her Husband (Of Marriage and Men: A Comedy Double-Bill).

Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Of Marriage and Men: A Comedy Double-Bill
  • Written by Bernard Shaw
  • Directed by Philip Akin
  • Starring Kelly Wong and Fiona Byrne
  • At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Through September 9

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rating

There is still an appetite and an audience for Bernard Shaw at the Shaw Festival, believe it or not.

In fact, Of Marriage and Men, a double bill of lesser-known one-act comedies by Shaw, extended its run this summer in Niagara-on-the-Lake before it even opened to the press this week.

This is especially good news because it’s a lovely show.

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The Man of Destiny, which comes second on the bill, is an 1897 comedy set in an Italian inn during the French Revolutionary Wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte – played in a marvelously fresh and contemporary manner by Kelly Wong – is having breakfast when a bumbling lieutenant (the very funny Andrew Lawrie) arrives to tell of how a strange boy ran off with his guns, his horse and the letters he was supposed to be bringing to the general.

The thief turns out to actually be a Strange Lady, as she’s billed in the program (played by a feisty Fiona Byrne). After successfully bamboozling the lieutenant a second time, this Lady reveals to Napoleon that she stole his mail in order to intercept a letter on its way to a husband informing him that his wife is having an affair. The question of whether a husband – Napoleon, perhaps - would want to know such information is the one of the subjects of the lively Shavian debate that follows.

Director Philip Akin lets The Man of Destiny froth and bubble with little intervention – but there is a small moment that is incredibly delightful, just after Napoleon launches into a monologue with the line: “Listen to me: I will explain the English to you.”

Here, Byrne leaps up onto a table and sits cross-legged and says “Do!” in such an eager way that the audience burst into laughter. This is absolutely making fun of Shaw’s penchant for long scenes of mansplaining – while, at the same time, opening us up to listen in a new way to the speech that follows, a deservedly famous one in which the English are lampooned as “a nation of shopkeepers.” It’s funny how little it takes, really, to make what could be an eye-rolling moment in an old play and make it newly mesmerizing.

Wong delivers the speech wonderfully, and it’s truly baffling that this actor is only now, in his tenth season at the Shaw Festival, getting a major role in a play by Shaw. He’s mainly known here for his musical-theatre chops – and, after seeing the articulate swagger he brought to Napoleon, I found myself suddenly fantasizing about him bringing that talent to a Canadian production of Hamilton, should one ever materialize.

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I then realized, too, how much Lin-Manuel Miranda channels the spirit of Shaw in his hip-hop musical with its rapped “cabinet battles” about, for instance, whether or not the U.S. should give aid to the French in their revolutionary wars. Full circle! This type of connection between texts then and now is part of what makes going to see classics so very pleasurable.

The Man of Destiny is preceded by How He Lied to Her Husband, a squib that Shaw wrote over four days in 1904 to pad out an American production of The Man of Destiny. Set in then-contemporary London, it’s thematically linked: A group of poems that a young man (Shawn Ahmed) has written to a married woman (Krystal Kiran) have gone missing – and the woman is worried that they will fall into the hands of her husband (David Adams).

The first half of the short play has the poet trying to convince his lover to be honest about their affair; the second half sees the the lover and husband arguing amongst themselves and a couple of reversals that must have seemed terribly racy at the time.

Even with a commanding performance by Adams as the husband, however, the playlet seems like a lazy and smug bit of a self-referential (and self-reverential) writing. It’s overloaded with jokes about another Shaw comedy, Candida.

The most notable aspect of this Shaw Festival production is that three South Asian Canadian actors are starring in a play set in a South Kensington flat – and their background is not ignored, but informs the costumes and a couple of the line readings. We haven’t really seen this approach to a Shaw play before at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and it’s overdue.

Akin is probably right to treat How He Lied to Her Husband as mere amuse-bouche. The question of what a man might want to do upon discovering his wife has had an affair versus what society expects him to do is much better explored in the second play.

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A modern audience might be more interested in hearing more from the female characters in both instances, but toxic masculinity and the link between male sexual insecurity and violence are subjects that remain in need of scrutiny and satire.

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