Saturday, August 21, 2010

Shaw Festival continues to impress with two Shaw plays this season

It seems strangly odd, in a way, that after all the reviews I have written so far this season about offerings at the Shaw Festival, I have yet to write about any of Shaw's plays. There are only two on the playbill this season, after all, but let's remedy the situation right now, and take a look at those very two offerings: John Bull's Other Island and The Doctor's Dilemma.

Shaw's John Bull's Other Island was written at the invitation of W.B. Yeats for Dublin's Abbey Theatre, but was rejected for performance as "uncongenial" as Shaw put it; the play opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1904, directed by both Shaw himself and fellow playwright and good friend Harley Granville Barker. Barker also played Peter Keegan in that first production. The Shaw Festival has produced the play three times before: in 1964, 1985 and 1998, the last two of which I have seen. Jim Mezon, who plays the role of Keegan here, directed that 1998 production. This time, the play is directed by former long-time Artistic Director Christopher Newton.

Newton has crafted a finely detailed, beautifully staged and acted edition of John Bull's Other Island, but being a Shaw play after all, it is a long sit and very wordy. So, be advised if you are not prepared for the adventure; if you are, you will be rewarded with some finely drawn characterizations by a great cast directed by a man who knows his way around a Shaw play.

The story centres on civil engineers Broadbent and Doyle, who travel from London to Roscullen in Ireland, with Doyle reluctantly returning to his Irish roots. Broadbent, played with great style by Benedict Campbell, likes the place and the people so much he decides to run for political office so he can represent them. Ultimately he is thwarted in his plan, and certainly the irony of a transplanted Englishman wanting to represent the Irish was not lost on the audiences of the day. Broadbent's Irish partner in his firm, Larry Doyle, is played by Graem Somerville, who is having a very strong season at Shaw this year. Other notables in the cast include Jim Mezon in the aforementioned role of Peter Keegan; Severn Thompson as Nora Reilly; and David Schurmann in a small but important role as Hodson. The other notable standout is Mary Haney as Aunt Judy; Mary always makes her mark in these roles, and this one is no exception.

I liked the presentation of John Bull's Other Island, but I must confess it is not my favourite offering by the Irish playwright. Still, there is lots to recommend this production, so I give it an advised three out of four stars. John Bull's Other Island continues at the Court House Theatre until October 9th.

Meantime on the Festival stage, one of the big productions this year is Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, directed by Morris Panych. It runs until October 30th. The set, incidentally, is not everyone's cup of tea. The oversize backdrops, courtesy of designer Ken MacDonald, apparently have rankled a few, but I found them fascinating and managed to magnify the dilemma the doctor, in this case Sir Colenso Ridgeon, faces in the play. The big decision he has to make is done in front of a backdrop just as big.

As director Panych notes in the program, the play is very much reflected in today's debate of public, socialized medicine vs. private. He stands squarely on the side of public medicine, and Shaw's play offers reasons still very valid today why it is in our best interest to remain public rather than private with our health care. The dilemma faced by the doctor in question, Ridgeon, is one of time; he has only so much time to treat so many patients, and if he accepts just one more patient, in this case the gifted but conceited artist Louis Dubedat, he must let one of his other patients go. Ridgeon wrestles with the question, and ultimately refuses Dubedat's wife's pleas to help her man so he can help a man Ridgeon feels is more moral, Dr. Blenkinsop. Ridgeon passes Dubedat off to a colleague, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington and this does not go down well with Jennifer Dubedat.

In this day and age, we cannot fathom a doctor having to make that decision, but when The Doctor's Dilemma premiered in 1906, again with Harley Granville Barker directing with Shaw's help and also appearing in the role of Dubedat, Shaw was helping to shape public opinion on public vs. private health care with this very play. So the timeliness, especially here in the Niagara Region, is not lost on those in the audience, to be sure.

The cast is uniformly strong here, with Patrick Galligan making his mark as the recently knighted Ridgeon; Michael Ball is wonderful as the wise old Dr. Cullen, now retired; Thom Marriott is suitably overbearing as Bonington and Ric Reid is quite effective as Dr. Blenkinsop. Jennifer Colosimo is a striking Jennifer Dubedat and Jonathan Gould is a very model of the scoundrel Louis Dubedat.

There is lots of interest in this production of The Doctor's Dilemma, last produced at Shaw in 2000, and with good reason. A strong cast and assured direction have produced a very fine edition of the play, and as a result it rates a strong three out of four stars.

August 21st, 2010.