Theater Commentary: Impressions of Canada’s Shaw Festival 2023, Part One

By Bill Marx

For a semi-Shavian like myself, the Shaw Festival once again proved that it was the place to be.

The Apple Cart by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Eda Holmes. At the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, through October 7.

Village Wooing by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Selma Dimitrijevic. At the Shaw Festival, the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, through October 7.

Tom Rooney as King Magnus with the cast members of the Shaw Festival’s staging of The Apple Cart. Photo: David Cooper

Until last month, I had not been at the Shaw Festival for almost 20 years. From the late ’80s through the early ’00s I attended somewhat regularly. It was a welcoming place where you could see not only first-rate productions of GBS’s masterpieces, but productions of the dramatist’s lesser, but still provocative, scripts. These productions were usually expertly pulled off by the cream of Canadian acting and directing talent, who during the summer either went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or to the Shaw Fest. The company’s performers handled the operatics of Shavian drama — its quirky musicality and soapbox virility — with passionate virtuosity. Among my favorite productions: over a two-day period I saw all five plays of GBS’s epic (and magnificently wonky) Back to Methuselah (1922); his highly amusing Fanny’s First Play (a 1911 farce that, among other things, satirizes theater critics hostile to GBS via the contrivance of a young suffragette); 1932’s raucous On the Rocks (overnight, a Liberal Prime Minister undergoes a whopper of an ideological breakdown), and 1938’s rarely produced — for understandable reasons — Geneva (which presents cartoonized versions of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini).

Of course, scripts by other dramatists were also given first-rate productions, including Shaw’s contemporaries (I remember seeing a terrific staging of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son.) But for me, the festival was especially valuable because it served its namesake so well; a playwright whose crusade against inequality and capitalist exploitation — as a lifelong Socialist — remains as relevant as ever. Critic Fredric Jameson has aptly written of Shaw that “in the uniquely apolitical atmosphere of Anglo-American literature … it is always instructive to examine the extraordinarily rich practice of one of the great political artists of modern times.” Not only to examine, but to experience — on stage — its zest, humor, nerve, verve, and dialectical panache. Shaw could be wrong, disastrously so in the case of Geneva. But even when his dramas veer into disgraceful directions, such as his flirtation with dictators in the ’30s, he offers something worth grappling with — in this case, a warning about where pessimism, driven by an impatience for change, can lead. Shaw yearned for the arrival of a magical “strong man” of high intelligence — a cross between Nietzsche’s Superman and Plato’s philosopher king — who would take actions against an expanding oligarchy that democracy seemed incapable of taking. And that alert is particularly needed now, given the rise of fascism around the world — and its muscle-stretching in America.

Julia Course as Z and Michael Mann as A in the Shaw Festival’s staging of Village Wooing. Photo: David Cooper.

There were other perks, such as chances to chat with the great GBS researcher, the late Dan H. Lawrence. And it was relaxing to spend time in the flower-bestrewn, somewhat gingerbread-ish town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Well, after a nearly two decade hiatus, I decided to return for a three-day stay: I saw six productions, two scripts by GBS (The Apple Cart and Village Wooing), James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Selma Dimitrijevic’s Mother, Daughter, and a knockabout improv version of Pierre de Marivaux’s 18th-century romance The Game of Love and Chance. I had a fabulous time — I regretted having stayed away for so long. The Shaw Fest’s three stages proffered top notch fare: the productions were beautifully acted and mounted, the plays were well worth seeing, and there are plenty of opportunities for sumptuous dining in bucolic surroundings that include more wineries than I remember.

I am going to focus on 1928’s The Apple Cart, which is the principle reason I went up this summer. It is considered one of the most successful of Shaw’s lower-rung scripts, and I had never seen it on stage. It comes after the artistic pinnacle of Saint Joan (1923), and kicks off the final period in his career as a playwright. Shaw turned 70 in 1926, and with age — and the global trauma that followed World War I — came anxiety. Generally, Shaw’s plays up to Saint Joan are driven by an expansive confidence in the future. But The Apple Cart takes a more fearful stance — there’s an underlying sense that civilization is going off-track. From this time on, Shaw’s major dramas become more diagnostic — less about building character and narrative, more about dissecting/ lampooning political failure.

Shaw articulates one of the impulses driving The Apple Cart in his 1926 tract “Socialism: Principles and Outlook”: “It is a historic fact, recurrent enough to be called an economic law, that Capitalism, which builds up great civilizations, also wrecks them if persisted in beyond a certain point.” He sensed the economic failure to come: The Apple Cart is on the cusp of Shaw decisively turning on his belief in the efficacy of democracy to work up a solution. (Shaw was already saying nice things about Mussolini in the mid ’20s.) In the play, the corporation Breakages, Limited is buying up politicians as it goes about undercutting the power and efficiency of the government. A craven press is manipulating the masses for profit while the theatrics of electoral politics are being dominated by men of the lowest common denominator. Given this state of affairs, Shaw asks what it would take to “change the private profiteering state into the common property distributive state”? Note: Could it be that Shaw’s name for the script’s nefarious company (its existence a testament to “the mischief done by our system of private Capitalism in setting up huge vested interests in destruction, waste, and disease”) anticipates Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now-famous motto: “Move fast and break things”?

Sochi Fried as Orinthia and Tom Rooney as King Magnus in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Apple Cart. Photo: David Cooper

Billed as “A Political Extravaganza,” The Apple Cart is set in “The Future” and dramatizes a temporary check on the encroachment of plutocracy. The male cabinet members want to neuter Britain’s constitutional monarchy for the sake of advancing the goals of Breakages, Limited. Its two women members are hostile to the corporation’s bullying but despair of defeating it. The scheme is to turn the independent-minded King Magnus into a powerless figurehead, bereft of veto and media-appeal. Magnus is too civic-minded to withdraw from the fight. And Shaw sees to it that he is not only the most intelligent man in the room where it happens, but the evening’s most adept political performer. (The dramatist has plenty of fun with the stagecraft of politics in this script — everybody is playing a role, some much better than others.)

Magnus outmaneuvers the cabinet and, because the personal is always the political for Shaw, he also calmly placates his mistress, Orinthia, who is plotting to replace the prosaic Queen. (His triumph is capped by an infamous scene-ending wrestling match.) Magnus will have much more trouble with American imperialism — near the end of the play the US announces that it intends to absorb Britain, an issue that is left hanging. Along with the corporate control of government, other themes in the script have satiric resonance. There’s the god-like delusions of royalty (à la Diana) and the political appeal of strong men, not only Magnus but the naïve representative of the working class in the play, Boanerges, who is not much of a believer in democracy. After the disaster of Brexit, Britain is desperate for American support, so the notion of England being taken over by the US is not as weird as it would have seemed decades ago. What’s more, Shaw sees how empire, driven by business, demands cultural homogenization.

Director Eda Holmes’s production is lean; it moves along with a compelling alacrity. Tom Rooney plays Magnus as a genial terrier of an idealized (Shavian) ruler who can parry and thrust with polite but wily ease. He handles the role’s high-flying speechifying (and occasional impishness) with dexterity, including one marvelous (and very long) aria in which Magnus sits the cabinet down as if they were first-graders in order to instruct them about “the great abstractions,” “conscience and virtue” and “the eternal against the expedient” among them. Standouts in the fine supporting cast would include Sochi Fried as a scrumptiously athletic Orinthia and Graeme Somerville as Prime Minister Joe Proteus, a beady-eyes-on-the-prize strategist who exploits his emotional meltdowns. A minor reservation about the staging: Holmes revels in the cut-and-slash of the script’s caricatures, but she doesn’t evoke the panic that’s running underneath the action. The production’s clean, antiseptic look doesn’t suggest the ugliness of what is to come. Shaw is anxious about the future: he makes it clear that Magnus has engineered a pause, a stopgap in an ongoing battle waged by overweening wealth against the restrictions of government. The pressure will build into an explosion in Shaw’s next state-of-England play, On the Rocks.

Tom Rooney as King Magnus in The Apple Cart at the Shaw Festival. Photo: David Cooper

As for those who would dismiss The Apple Cart as moldy, Shaw writes in his preface to the play that he is considering two inseparable problems: “the economic problem of how to produce and distribute our subsistence, and the political problem of how to select our rulers and prevent them from abusing their authority in their own interests or those of their class or religion.” Find me a contemporary American play that tackles these still pressing issues with Shaw’s perspicacity.

As for the delightful Village Wooing, this short play, written in 1933, is a charming (if somewhat recycled) exercise in Shaw’s ongoing deconstruction of marriage. Once again, he mischievously poses the question “What’s love got to do with it?” What’s wrong with two people getting hitched because they get along well enough and share common goals, in this case running a shop in a rural English village? There’s an element of the exhausted artist looking for a sedate harbor in everyday life here as well, perhaps a sign that Shaw was pining for an escape from the political turmoil of the period, fantasizing about chucking everything up for an “ordinary” life.

There is a touch of absurdity in the setup — the script’s subtitle is “A Comedietta for Two Voices.” Our protagonists are only given initials for names. A male professional travel writer on a world cruise (A) meets a female fan (Z) who is employed in a rural village shop. Z is attracted to him — A is trying to get some writing done and will have none of her flirtation. By the final scene the two are working in the shop: he has become the owner and marriage is on the docket. The genially combative dialogue between the contraries is adroitly comical — he is an irritable idealist, she a romantic pragmatist. And, via Z, Shaw takes his customary swipe against the joys of sensuality: “I am not a Materialist: I am a poet; and I know to be in your arms will not gratify my senses at all.” Some of the script’s amusement comes from our (and GBS’s) sensing that the Platonist doth protest too much.

The Shaw Fest production features an alternating cast of six performers, some of whom are on hand as stage hands moving props about between scenes. For me, director Selma Dimitrijevic bumbled what could have been a cute idea — if handled modestly. The problem is that at times the business of moving stuff around, putting apples in place, making sure chairs were in the right position, became a bit too … showbusy. The performance I saw featured Michael Mann as A and Donna Soares as Z, and they made for a vivaciously contentious pair, though Mann went up on his lines a few times.

It was a pleasure to see both productions. For a semi-Shavian like myself, the Shaw Festival once again proved that it was the place to be.

Impressions of Canada’s Shaw Festival, 2023, Part 2

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Tom Connolly on September 6, 2023 at 10:29 am

    Good to read about Shaw productions. Some of the windy playwrights praised today would benefit from GBS’s ability to turn a phrase. As you note, even when he’s being polemic he’s never typing with clenched fists. Have you listened to the recording Noel Coward and Margaret Leighton made of some scenes from The Apple Cart? One of the few times Coward appeared in a play he hadn’t written himself was his 1953 coronation-year run as King Magnus. He was quite proud of never fluffing long monologue.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on September 6, 2023 at 11:05 am

      I have heard that recording. I believe it is of the middle act of The Apple Cart, the discussion between Magnus and his mistress.

  2. Gerald Peary on September 6, 2023 at 10:57 am

    How nice, Bill, to see you actually excited about theater and writing enthusiastically and expertly. What a change from the dreary world of Boston where almost every play chosen is because of its multicultural message.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on September 6, 2023 at 11:25 am

      When the play/production is compelling I respond. Why should I be enthusiastic about mediocrity or the routine? There is nothing stopping a “multicultural” play from being great — but it has to do more than make audiences feel good about themselves.

      I agree that a lot of the programming in Boston follows a predictable path — generally dictated by what is ‘hot’ in New York. There’s not much risk-taking going on given the anxieties about the fragile economic state of regional theaters. “Breaking boundaries” is a marketing slogan. In reality, it is more like not breaking the bank. Formal innovation, tackling issues of war, peace, economic inequality, growing corporate dominance, the climate crisis, the weakening of democracy and rise of fascism around the world are not of much interest to theatergoers or companies. Not joyful enough. Shows based on movies (or the making of movies, such as The Shark is Broken) seem to be the latest trend.

      This lack of adventurousness is a culture wide crisis, as stated by music critic Ted Gioia: “These are all symptoms of a larger problem — namely the pervasive blandness and stagnation in popular culture. In a vibrant and healthy society, entertainment businesses wouldn’t be obsessed with cost cutting. They would, instead, try to grow revenues with exciting new offerings.”

      The last staging I saw in Boston that grabbed me was Arlekin Players Theatre & (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab’s fierce anti-Russian Ukrainian war satire The the Gaaga. I am going out to Bard College later this month to see Elevator Repair Service’s staging of 18 episodes from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The group’s theatrical reading (of the complete Great Gatsby) was terrific — I hope this will be as memorable.

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