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August 2011 - Nr. 8
Irena Syrokomla

Shaw Festival - Niagara-on-the-Lake

This season is the 50th anniversary of the Shaw Festival which staged its first productions of Candida and Don Juan in Hell at the historic Court House. At that time it was an all-amateur season produced by Brian Doherty and directed by Maynard Burgess.

It was also the year that a young Christopher Newton immigrated to Canada and got involved with the theatre here. He became the Artistic Director in 1979 and contributed immensely to the growth and personality of the Festival over the next 23 years. He retired in 2002 and Jackie Maxwell – current Artistic Director – took over. However, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary, Christopher Newton returned to direct Heartbreak House, a classic Shaw’s play.

Over the past 50 years the Shaw Festival has grown as its location expanded to two, then three theatres, eventually to four stages. The number of plays per season increased from two to a dozen and became the only theatre in the world devoted to Bernard Shaw plays and other playwrights of his times or about the time period of Shaw’s life. It enjoys an international status: attendance in 2010 was 262,000 and one out of every three members of the audience came from the United States or overseas.

Candida by Bernard Shaw,
directed by Tadeusz Bradecki

This play has a long history at the Shaw Festival – this is the sixth production of Candida, first one in 1962, then 1970, 1983, 1993 and 2002. It is a delightful comedy dealing with the triangle of a husband Reverend James Morell played by Nigel Shawn Williams, his wife Candida played by Claire Jullien and Eugene Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). The Morells have a stable satisfying marriage, Candida being the stabilizing motherly force, which is unexpectedly invaded by a very young and very naive Marchbanks declaring his love and adoration to Candida and expecting dramatic changes to take place. All three actors present very individual personalities and very natural reactions – Candida being very motherly and treating both her husband and the young chap as boys, the Reverent momentarily losing his confidence and perspective, Marchbanks reciting romantic lines and imagining some idealized future with a woman possibly 13 years his senior. There is also very Shawian question: to whom does she belong or will belong to? Or does she belong to herself?

The play is wonderful, well directed and somehow quite modern despite costumes and the set. Happy return of the memorable Candida for its 50th Anniversary!

My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe
directed by Molly Smith

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady - photo: Emily CooperMy Fair Lady premiered for the first time at Broadway in 1956, and it has been popularized many times on many stages and enjoyed great success as a movie with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in 1964. And this is the first time that My Fair Lady is being staged at the Shaw Festival. Amazing, isn’t it? Well, it’s about time.

Neil Barclay as Alfred Doolittle and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle with cast of My Fair Lady - photo: Emily CooperThere is no need to comment on the content, we all know it very well. Therefore: the acting is great. Deborah Hay as Eliza, Benedict Campbell as Higgins, Patrick Gilligan as Colonel Pickering and Neil Barklay as Alfred Doolittle are great. I have seen these actors Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle and Mark Uhre as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady - photo: Emily Cooperbefore and admire their craft of changing personalities and giving their most every time. The music and singing makes you want to sing and dance along with the actors and dancers. Paul Sportelli, Musical Director, has done a terrific job again, as usual. Choreography is amazing. A+

Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle with Cockney Quartet (Jeff Irving, Louie Rossetti, Kelly Wong and Jonathan Tan) in My Fair Lady - photo: David CooperThe only complaint I have is about the costumes – they do not represent the era or the style. Perhaps the designer wanted to disassociate herself from the usual black and white theme of the Ascot scene, however the results are not a success. Oh well, sorry.

The Admirable Crichton by J.M.Barrie
directed by Morris Panych

Another play from Shaw’s times, another social issue to be deliberated upon: departure from reality on the deserted island, dramatic change in established social structure, reversal of the roles of master and servant, and then sudden awakening and return to reality. Has anything really changed? J.M.Barrie wrote The Admirable Crichton in 1902 and since then there must have been several movies loosely based on it – As I remember,– the idea has not changed but the details have. The play is interesting, well-acted, amusing at times, clearly showing how the idea of life on the isolated island would develop and change from the early 20th century to present times. The play must have been much more shocking when it was staged for the first time than it is today - In the present time, it is just amusing to see the servant being practical and realistic in managing life and the lord being helpless in the wilderness of the deserted island.

David Schurmann plays the role of Earl of Loam and Steven Sutcliffe the title role of Crichton.

This is a repeat of the production from 2008, a great success three years ago and now. A short one-hour one-act play starting at 11:30am at the Royal George (a number of individuals understood a luncheon play to start at 12 pm and lost half of the fun!) and worth having a taste of great theatre at a modest price.

Ferenc Molnar was a great writer in his time in Hungary and somehow he is becoming more popular in Canada (see Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto).

Blair Williams – director - has not changed his approach and the actors are the same: Lorne Kennedy as Norrison, Jeff meadows as Tony Foot and Julie Martell as Lydia. The dramatic transformation of Tony Foot from nowhere to the presidential figure of Anton von Schottenberg is amazing, the pace exhilarating. If you have time for one play only – see The President! It is worth it!

All of the above plays continue until the end of October.

Shaw Festival Box Office has a toll free number 1-800-511-SHAW or information is available on the website

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Irena Syrokomla reviews arts, entertainment, the performing arts such as theatre, musicals, stage performances.

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