It's subtitled A Fantasia In The Russian Manner On English Themes, but the themes are typically Shavian – primarily, the complacent hypocrisy of the English bourgeoisie just before the Great War (and, by extension, in the period of any given revival). But Shaw could never distil the play, and at a shade under four hours its demands are great, perhaps excessive. The drawing-room comedy of the first two acts doesn't soften an audience up for the impact of the final apocalypse; rather it can fatally wrong-foot us, leaving us dazedly wondering where the genteelly scabrous humour went.
This is compounded by the fact that the all-star cast (eight names above the title) show a regrettable tendency to render their stereotyped characters down to mere caricatures – the major honourable exception being Vanessa Redgrave as Hesione Hushabye, a siren "of a certain age" but one who cavorts rather than galumphing, and whose later modulations are therefore less jarring. Trevor Nunn labours assiduously but his skills can only illuminate, not shape anew, this great intractable lump on which directorial tools blunt or break. In some ways "respectable" is a damning adjective to use of a Shaw play; Nunn's production, while meriting the word's positive connotations, doesn't fully escape the more pejorative ones.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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