While on vacation last week, PJ and I saw two plays at the Shaw Theatre Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Shaw Festival started in 1962 and is dedicated to staging the works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries.

American audiences are probably most familiar with Shaw’s Pygmalion, since it was the basis of the musical My Fair Lady. (I read the play in high school.) But Shaw wrote a large number of plays, many of which are still part of the repertoire, including Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), and Saint Joan (1923).

Neither PJ nor I have ever enjoyed Shaw’s plays all that much, so we didn’t have the highest expectations. We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed Niagara-on-the-Lake and the two plays we saw at the festival.

The first play we saw was Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. The play centers on Vivie, played by Moya O’Connell. Vivie is a rather prudish, mannish kind of young woman who intends to become an actuary now that she has graduated from Cambridge. As the play begins, Vivie is joined in the country by her mother’s friend, Praed, played by David Jansen, and eventually by her mother, Mrs. Warren, played by Mary Haney. Over the first two acts, Vivie learns that her mother has supported her through prostitution (Vivie has been raised by surrogates while Mrs. Warren has lived on the continent). After hearing her mother describe her early life in poverty, Vivie initially forgives her for her choices, but when she learns in Act 3 that her mother’s extremely profitable business is still in operation (Mrs. Warren now serves as CEO of the company), she decides to repudiate her and swears never to see her again. In the meantime, other revelations about Mrs. Warren’s past doom Vivie’s relationship with her young man, Frank, played by Andrew Bunker.

This production was very good. I especially liked O’Connell’s performance. She gives Vivie the right blend of prudishness and likability. This production emphasizes Vivie’s status as a New Woman. Ultimately her views of women and their disadvantages and status in society come up against those of her mother, making this play a study of two conflicting forms of early feminism. (It was also a nice touch to have all of the men wince when Vivie shakes their hands — she has “a resolute and hearty grip,” which this production interprets as vise-like.) Haney is a little less effective in her role as Mrs. Warren, mostly because she frequently seemed to stumble over her lines. The other actors were all very good in their supporting roles.

The sets are also worth mentioning. The set for Act 1, the outside of a country cottage, quickly reverses to become the inside of the cottage. The set for Act 3 similarly reverses from the outside of a country parsonage to the inside of Vivie’s London office. These sets are realistic, which is appropriate for the style of play, without being too showy or upstaging the action.

The second play we saw, Terence Rattigan‘s After the Dance, was even better. It was a real revelation. I’ve seen the movie version of Separate Tables, but I didn’t know anything else about Rattigan or his work. This play is also about intergenerational conflict.

After the Dance explores what happens to a group of Bright Young Things, wealthy young people in the 1920s who partied like there was no tomorrow, after they’ve reached middle age and are therefore not young or even particularly bright anymore. Here’s how the playbill describes it:

It’s 1938 and the generation of Bright Young Things are still carrying on like it’s the Roaring Twenties. They’re that “lost generation”, the ones that missed World War I and are trying desperately to deny the looming threat of the next war. And to the younger generation, their life of endless parties seems utterly frivolous. But David and his wife Joan can’t stop looking back to a time and place when the bright lights shone on them. When a young woman enters their lives, however, it seems to signal the party might be ending.

Helen, played by Marla McLean, is the woman of the next generation who determines to save David, played by Patrick Galligan, from his drinking and seemingly loveless marriage to Joan, played by Deborah Hay. The play explores the consequences of this decision for these and the rest of the major characters.

All of the actors in this production are great. McLean is wonderful as the self-assured Helen. Her bright certainty turns out to be just about as scary as Briony Tallis’s behavior in Atonement. She wants to save David as much because she wants to be his wife as for his own sake. This causes obvious problems since he’s married and she’s engaged to his young relative, Peter, played by Ken James Stewart. I particularly admired Hay’s performance. Her character has to show a great deal of subtlety and nuance. Hays delivers the full range of Joan’s emotions and regrets with heart-breaking naturalness.

I haven’t had a chance to learn much about Rattigan yet except that he was gay. This play had an indefinable queer sensibility even though there aren’t any particularly gay characters in it. Besides learning more about Rattigan’s life and work, this play has put me in a mood to read more about the Bright Young Things. One outgrowth of this was the desire to see Brideshead Revisited today, but I’ll blog about that tomorrow.

Overall, PJ and I both really enjoyed our brief visit to the Shaw Festival. We would definitely like to go back again. I don’t actually know much about Shaw or any of his contemporaries. If these plays are any indication, their works will be really interesting.