George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is a play that—for all its terrifyingly apt resonances with the present—is stylistically very much of its era, and while director, David Staller, attempts to put his stamp on the text, his production might have benefited from a much bolder approach.
The set is particularly problematic; designed by James Noone, it depicts a gleaming black and gold drawing room, which clearly lays out the Undershaft family’s privileged lifestyle, but while this limited color palette must have taxed whoever had to find black food on which the characters could nibble, more profoundly, this opulence constrains the production in its attempts to effectively evoke urban poverty.
Shaw’s play opens with Hannah Cabell’s Barbara Undershaft – daughter of a wealthy munitions manufacturer – out preaching on a London street corner. Although Michael Gottlieb’s lighting picks her out amid the opulence, and she is reasonably effective in addressing the audience as potential converts, there is little sense of the poverty she is campaigning against.
This is more apparent when the double-cast actors are forced to play the working class, cockney characters while sitting on shiny, gilt-edged seats; surely comfort is more easily imagined? For the play to trouble its audience, the poverty needs to strike home with as much impact as the wealth of the privileged.
The same stylistic choices are evident in the concluding scenes at Undershaft’s armaments factory, the black and gold of the drawing room replaced almost entirely by gold. The use of banners—“SALVATION” at the shelter, “UNASHAMED” at the factory—is one of the few design choices that seems to have a strong dramaturgical foundation.
The cast perform with energy and an ensemble spirit. The doubling is well executed, with the actors performing with equal strength in both their parts; there are times, however, when the cast appear to be acting manners and accents more than people and actions. Admittedly, manners are an essential component of the play, but they should be more fully grounded in character.
Shaw’s characters are witty and dry (except for poor “Cholly,” who is delightfully silly and wet) in a way that demands fast delivery. Cabell is perhaps more justified in “resist[ing the] strong impulse to jump to a very quick delivery, so that audiences can really hear all the tiny details” as she comments in the publicity materials—Barbara is, after all, the (or one of the) raisonneurs of the play, and certainly, it would be a shame to miss any of Shaw’s wit, but part of his skill here is to transform over two hours of philosophizing into something sprightly. The comedy does come through, and the production does capture the relevance of Shaw’s 1905 play to the present day. In fact Staller underlines this relevance by having the ensemble return in the final moments and repeat some of the more telling lines: an unnecessary device which almost overshadows the disturbing moral ambiguity of Shaw’s conclusion.