A visit to the Shaw Festival

Gordon Jones
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Newfoundlander Nicole Underhay is ‘radiant and passionate’ as Major Barbara

Newfoundland native Nicole Underhay as Barbara Undershaft in this year’s Shaw Festival production of “Major Barbara.” — Photo by David Cooper/The Shaw Festival

A ninety-minute drive from Toronto airport (well, usually two hours because of the congested highway), Niagara-on-the Lake is a pretty, polite, well groomed, small town surrounded by wineries.

Filled with well-appointed resorts, hotels and high-end B&B’s, the population expands exponentially from April through October, when the town becomes the site of the seven-month long Shaw Festival, with plays mounted in four locales, attended predominantly by elderly and middle-aged tourists (like myself) with comparatively deep pockets.

 As the Stratford Festival focuses on Shakespeare, so the Shaw Festival, founded in 1962, centres on the works of the long-lived George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. Performances take place at The Festival Theatre, The Royal George, The Courthouse, or Studio One.

Curiously, though, of the nine plays and two play-readings programmed for the season, only one and a half are by Shaw — “Major Barbara” and “Peace in Our Time,” an adaptation by John Murrell of Shaw’s “Geneva.”

The rest of the repertoire consists of plays and adaptations from or about the period of Shaw’s long life (he died in 1948 at the age of 94).

With a little stretching of temporal boundaries here and there, dramatists and adapted authors, in addition to Shaw, include Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham, novelists Elizabeth von Arnim and Elizabeth Spencer, Eugene O’Neill, Brian Friel and Tom Stoppard.

I recently visited Niagara-on-the Lake for six days of light business and pleasure, taking in three of the festival offerings, including one in which I was particularly interested because a Newfoundland actress was cast in the lead role.

Mounted in The Royal George and seamlessly directed by festival artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, dating back to 1905, “Major Barbara” is Shaw’s machine for scrutinizing, debating, and problematizing social, moral and economic issues of the European arms race and its effect on Edwardian society.

Towering brick walls and an upstage iron walkway evoke Blake’s satanic mills, representing industrialized England in the period between the Boer War and the Great War (the imminence of which Shaw presciently anticipates), a society in which the rich live off the blood, sweat and tears of the poor.

Downstage, a drawing room represents the home of the upper-class Undershaft family, whose wealth derives from the father’s manufacturing weapons of mass destruction for sale to any and all clients with money enough to buy.

The play opens with a direct audience address by the proselytizing Barbara Undershaft in severe Salvation Army uniform.

Joyful, enthusiastic and idealistic, Major Barbara has renounced her life of pampered idleness to become a missionary, spreading the faith and saving the souls of urban poor in the slums of east London.

In her seventh season at the Festival, Newfoundland actress, Nicole Underhay, is radiant and passionate in the titular role, modulating into sad disillusion after resigning from a Salvation Army compromised by accepting funding from her arms-dealing father.

Barbara returns to the bosom of her prosperous, if quarrelsome, family: selfish mother (Laurie Paton), cynical father (Benedict Campbell), effete, high-minded son who will not soil his hands with trade (Ben Sanders), socialite daughter (Ijeoma Emesowun) and her fatuous husband — a kind of forerunner of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). All squabble and fight over conflicting values of self-centeredness and social philanthropy.

Even with the superabundance of outrageous Shavian, cloak-dragging, the dysfunctional family keeps the argument boiling and the audience engrossed as passion rises, and as Shaw’s social blasphemy becomes more and more breath-taking.


Organizations: Festival Theatre, Salvation Army, Royal George Theatre

Geographic location: Toronto, Newfoundland, Geneva England London Broadway

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