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Major Barbara

Published 17 April 2008

The award-winning success of 2007’s Saint Joan was taken by National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner as a sign that London theatre was ready for a bit more Bernard Shaw. So, as the first production in the 2008 Travelex £10 season, he has revived Shaw’s tale of faith, poverty and arms manufacture, Major Barbara. Matthew Amer was in the first night audience at the Olivier.

Shaw is relevant again. Was he ever not so? While Saint Joan dealt with a central character so absorbed by her religious beliefs that she was willing to die for them, Major Barbara questions whether the multi-million pound arms business drives war in the world and whether there can be any excuse for this. Both themes are as relevant now as they have ever been.

Which is the greater evil, poverty or war? If the money from arms manufacture is put to good use, helping people, giving them jobs, hope and a solid pension plan, does this wash the blood from it?

Simon Russell Beale plays arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft, a man who is bold and honest about his chosen path in life, who sees power in money rather than God, but chooses to use the power wisely. Estranged from his family because of his business, monetary necessity brings them back to him, presenting him with the opportunity to change their point of view and name a successor.

Shaw’s drama is packed with ideas and arguments, and in the lead roles Hytner has four performers who can stand admirably toe to toe with one another. Russell Beale as the honest arms manufacturer performs with a growling exuberance, a charisma bomb ready to explode, cheeky one minute, deadly serious the next.

Clare Higgins, as his wife, presents a wonderfully upper class matriarch, wholly capable of running family life in her husband’s absence but insistent that her son steps in instead. She brings a warm aloofness to the role, caring about appearances but melted by those around her she so obviously cares for.

Paul Ready as Greek scholar and son-in-law-to-be Adolphus is the thinking man of the piece, quoting philosophy and theories but ruled by his heart.

In Hayley Atwell the production has a Barbara with playfulness in her eyes and seriousness in her jaw-line. Wilful and passionate, dedicated to her beliefs, when money proves an ultimate power, her eyes lose their magnetic sparkle as the heart is ripped out of her belief.

Three simple yet effective sets from Tom Pye convey the opulence of the Undershaft family home, the bleakness of the Salvation Army shelter and the vast power of the arms factory.

Shaw may not be the most subtle of playwrights when it comes to raising issues for discussion – dropping one of Undershaft’s bombs may be less obvious – but the art with which the arguments develop and the skill with which the cast deliver them, ensure that the thought does not overwhelm the drama. em>MA

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