Hope reigns;Set plays;Theatre

21st May 1999 at 01:00
MAJOR BARBARA. touring until July 24, tel: Michael Friend Productions on 01279 870474.

The final act of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara contains an epic confrontation between Andrew Undershaft, an armaments manufacturer, and Adolphus Cusins, a poet who intends to be Undershaft's son-in-law. They assert their ideas, the realist versus the idealist, and argue about the direction that the world should take. In the wrong hands their exchanges could soon descend into tedious political debate.

Michael Friend, a long-standing Shaw enthusiast, has been waiting many years for the Shaw estate's permission to produce Major Barbara. His production holds an audience's attention throughout, the characters given a substance rarely seen in performances of Shaw's plays.

"I did think about cutting", Friend explains. "But I didn't - not a single line. As we read through the text in rehearsal we found the shape and pace of the play. There are subtle signals in the way a speech is going. It's like listening to a famous symphony with so many themes developing.

"Shaw had experience of public speaking; he knew exactly when the audience would start to lose interest and he needed to put in a joke."

Undershaft, as played by David Pearson, is a genial, white-haired man with the look of a kindly grandfather. Not quite the dapper, dandy figure of some productions, but a quiet and unassuming man. He has great knowledge and great ideas but he is limited by his cynicism. Michael Friend sees a parallel with the character Woltan, chief of the gods in Wagner's Ring Cycle. He, too, is incapable of putting the world to rights because he has become corrupted.

Adolphus Cusins is usually played as a straight, romantic lead but Stephen Israel plays him with strength and touches of quirkiness, which is what Shaw wanted.

Major Barbara was written in 1905. It shows Shaw's disgust with the inertia of the world at that time and the smug acceptance of the status quo. It is characterised by the almost desperate need for change that runs through his work until the First World War.

"He was saying, 'stop putting your heads in the sand and leaving the men of business to run your country'," says Friend. "Then, 10 years later, in Heartbreak House, you get the bitterness, because that was written during the war. From then on Shaw's plays are saying 'I wasted my time preaching and lecturing and writing plays. I thought I would change people and they've not listened'. In Major Barbara he is still hopeful."

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