Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 4 March, 2008

I am reconfirmed in what I wrote when reviewing Major Barbara at the Orange Tree late in 2006, that it may well be Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece. We may dream of an age far ahead when the mordant observations of this 1905 drama cease to be perennially topical, but we are probably as deluded as most of the play’s characters. Shaw’s own argumentative surrogate here is Andrew Undershaft, an unrepentant arms millionaire who (appropriately) explodes both the antiquated patrician delusions of his wife and son and also the theistical idealism of his daughter, whose rank in the Salvation Army gives the play its title. Undershaft in effect buys Barbara’s God from her by writing a huge cheque for the Sallies which demonstrates that their virtuous work cannot be afforded without funding from supposedly wicked endeavours. Later, he entices her eccentrically cerebral fiance Adolphus into becoming his successor at the cannon factory, amid its model town with all material and social facilities, with the challenge “Dare you make war on war?”
Shaw’s point is that simple morality cannot cope with such complexities, and in the end ameliorating people’s lot in this world must come first, by whatever means. When Undershaft lists his own seven deadly sins, the serious ones chime remarkably with Beveridge’s five great evils which the welfare state was intended to slay. As for his unashamed exercise of power, his speech beginning “I am the government of your country!” is as blistering as anything David Hare and Howard Brenton wrote for their ogre of a press baron in Pravda 80 years later.
This speech is also one of the moments when Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Undershaft truly catches fire. We treat it almost as a matter of course now that Beale is simply the finest actor currently on our stage: he can seemingly get right inside every line of every character he plays. And what he reveals here is that, not so surprisingly, Andrew Undershaft is mostly an animated argument rather than a person. Beale sounds most comprehensively human on short, throwaway lines, as when “Dolly”’s faux-naïf question over his prospective salary, “Is three-fifths less than a half, or more?” is met by Beale with a perfectly timed pause and the single word “More” in which he conveys semi-incredulity, remonstration and even enjoyment at being twitted so.
At other times pauses, Beale’s included, are almost the death of Nicholas Hytner’s production. Clare Higgins is admirably un-battleaxe-y, almost absent-minded in her peremptoriness as Lady Britomart Undershaft (a name which nearly corpsed her and Beale on opening night) and John Heffernan properly ineffectual as son Stephen, but two such performances in a long opening duologue get things off to barely any start at all. Hayley Atwell has a fervent glitter in her eye as Barbara, but when she is standing up either to her father or the low-lifes in her Salvationist shelter, the effort begins to show. Paul Ready’s Adolphus gently parodies his own otherworldliness; he is the sort of man who could indeed be swayed by the persuasions of the man he calls “the Prince of Darkness” in the obligatorily debate-intense final act. There is a modest coup de théâtre in Tom Pye’s design (given the lesser budgets of the Travelex £10 season, of which this is 2008’s first production), when the Undershafts’ drawing-room is dismantled and dozens of artillery shells flown in to become the arms factory. But Hytner’s production feels constantly as if it is reaching out to fill the Olivier space when, if it put on more of a turn of speed, it could simply pull us along with it.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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