Sunday, August 25, 2019

Getting Married gets a timely update at Shaw Festival

There are fewer and fewer Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake these days, and one wonders what the future holds for old GBS.  True, his themes are often timeless and his arguments are often logically laid out in his plays.

But they can often be tedious affairs as well, and with modern audiences changing one wonders how the Festival can and ultimately will adapt to the new reality of staging Shaw's plays.  We've seen in the past Shaw's work updated by a more contemporary author, and directors take such artistic license with his plays they can almost appear unrecognizable as works by Shaw.

But a skilled and knowing director can update a Shaw play for today's audiences and pull it off with not only respect for the author but for the audiences watching as well.  Case in point is Tanja Jacobs, the director of the 2019 edition of Getting Married, currently on stage at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until October 13th.

To be honest, Getting Married is certainly one of Shaw's lesser plays.  It dates from 1908 when Harley Granville Barker, himself a noted playwright of the day, directed the premiere at London's Haymarket Theatre.  The Shaw Festival has staged the play four times previously and I think I've seen all but one of those, way back in 1972.  The last production at the Shaw Festival was in 2008.

Like many of Shaw's plays it is heavy on dialogue and light on action, and therein lies the challenge for director Jacobs:  how to lighten the load of those long, often dreary debates between characters on stage and actually make it appear to be entertaining.

For one thing, Jacobs sets this production circa 1950 when divorce laws were still largely as they were in Shaw's time when he wrote the play as a vehicle for him to rail at the archaic divorce laws of the day.  So the storyline remains relevant and intact.

But by setting the play in the early 50s and not having the actors using period English accents somehow appears to make things seem, well, a bit more modern for today's audiences.  And a colourful and clever set design from that era by Shannon Lea Doyle is literally a feast for the eyes as much as the play is a feast for the ears.

But this would all be for naught were it not for the superb cast of Shaw actors who bring the play to life with skill, precision and remarkable timing.  Here again, Jacobs chooses her cast members and directs them wisely.

In a nutshell, the play revolves around the pending nuptials of Edith and Cecil.  Edith is the daughter of Alfred Bridgenorth, Bishop of Chelsea and his wife Alice.  All the action takes place in the palace of the Bishop of Chelsea, although in this production calling the Bishop's dwelling a 'palace' might be stretching things a bit on the small stage the Royal George Theatre.

Anyways, young Edith and Cecil have come across a pamphlet raising what to them appear to be serious questions about marriage and upon careful consideration on their part they have decided to not get married after all.  It is left to the rest of the visitors and inhabitants of the palace to hash out the debate on the sanctity of marriage from each unique perspective.

That's the plot.  Rather thin, you have to admit.  But with Shaw he can build a whole play around that theme and he has.  It is up to director and cast to make it work, and they do.

The play opens with William Collins, the greengrocer in charge of the wedding planning going about his chores as the wedding approaches.  Damien Atkins, who shined in The Ladykillers at the Festival Theatre opposite Chick Reid does so again here with stellar performances from both.  Reid is Alice Bridgenorth the Bishop's devoted wife, and the verbal jousting between Alice and Collins as the play begins sets the stage for what's to come.

As the thoughtful and resourceful Bishop, Graeme Somerville puts in a fine performance, as does his assistant Reverend Soames, played by Andrew Lawrie who is brought in to try to write up a proper marriage contract that is fair to both sides in order to break the impasse.

It is the interaction between independent and feisty Lesbia Grantham and General Bridgenorth that is most interesting to watch, however.  Lesbia, played by Claire Jullien, has rejected the General's marriage proposals nine times previously and does so a tenth time during the play, causing the hapless and lovesick General, known affectionately as Boxer and played with bumbling precision by Martin Happer, to head to the gardens to soothe his broken heart with a smoke.

At the end of Act One the much talked about and very flirtatious Mrs. George Collins, the Mayoress, is set to make her grand entrance when we are left to anticipate that event with a perfectly timed intermission.

Act Two tends to drag just a little as Mrs. Collins adds her spice to the conversation and sets about righting the wrongs others have committed, but in the role Marla McLean, resplendent in a red dress of the era makes the most of her entrance and time on stage in just the second act.  She lives up to the billing from the first act.

Will Getting Married appeal to everyone?  No, not likely.  Shaw plays never do.  But if you like Shaw and you love great ensemble work from a superior cast, you will most certainly enjoy the 2019 edition of the play.

Getting Married continues at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until October 13th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

For tickets and more information, call the Shaw box office at 905-468-2153 or 1-800-511-7429, or go to

Have a great weekend!

August 24th, 2019.

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