by Lynn on May 27, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Deborah Hay as Hesione Hushabye and Michael Ball as Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House. Photo by David Cooper.

At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Written by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Christopher Newton. Designed by Leslie Frankish. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Starring: Michael Ball, Benedict Campbell, Patrick Galligan, Patricia Hamilton, Deborah Hay, Patrick McManus, Laurie Paton, William Vickers, Blair Williams and Robin Evan Willis.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

A very dramatic voice (director Christopher Newton over the public address system) tells us that it is a country house in Sussex in September 1914. Serious-minded, pragmatic Ellie Dunn has been invited to the home of Hesione Hushabye, along with Ellie’s father Mazzini Dunn and Ellie’s fiancée, Boss Mangan. Hesione’s intention is to make Ellie break off her engagement with the much older Mangan for a more suitable husband. Ellie has no intention of doing it. While she doesn’t love Mangan, she is grateful to him for his financial help to her family. That she doesn’t love him isn’t as important to her as the fact that he is rich and will give her a comfortable life. We find out later how ruthless he is about money—and how he cheats and crushes anyone who gets in his way to get it.

Mixed into this menagerie is Captain Shotover, Hesione’s father, a retired captain and full time eccentric, inventor and philosopher. He owns the home, but it’s run by Hesione. He believes that if you are a good navigator, of ships, life, etc. you will come out right. He does not look too kindly at the goings on in this messy household. Hesione flirts with every man she meets but is true, in her way, to Hector, her dashing husband. Hector Hushaby also flirts and charms every women he meets—Ellie being one of them, not knowing he’s married to Hesione—but he is true, in his way, to Hesione. They are tended by a harried, hurried housekeeper named Nurse Guinness.

Arriving unexpectedly is Hesione’s younger sister Ariadne Utterword, who left home years before to escape her father’s unconventional ideas and attitudes. She hasn’t been back in 23 years. She is followed by Randall Utterword, Ariadne’s charming, shiftless brother-in-law, who is in love with her. And for good measure there is a burglar named William Dunn who is no related to anybody in the play.

Captain Shotover’s whimsically decorated home is full of nautical paraphernalia, creaky gangplanks, red leather chairs, and nooks and crannies full of stuff. There are strategically placed curved wooden beams that make the whole thing look like the inside of a ship. Designer Leslie Frankish has stylishly designed Shaw’s version of a ship of fools in which all the inhabitants, both permanent and visiting, display the most irrational, rational, odd, behavior. It is as if they haven’t a care in the world, or a sense of what is going on in that troubled outside world. And of course they all will be caught up in it by the end of the play, the coming of WWI. Shaw at his most metaphoric—in which he considers these idle people to be responsible for the on-coming trouble. The set is particularly impressive when it becomes ‘untethered ’ at the end and rocks in an unfriendly sea.

Director Christopher Newton has navigated his production with a strong hand, thoughtful, intelligent ideas and of course his own particular whimsy. Ellie sits waiting for someone to realize she’s arrived and greet her. She reads a book of Shakespeare while waiting and dozes off. (Is this Shaw being his impish self, commenting on the effect of Shakespeare on a reader—they doze off? Or perhaps suggesting that Ellie dreams the whole play?).

The cast is very strong. As Captain Shotover, Michael Ball is blustery, a touch irritated with all the upheaval going on in his household, and of course wise when dispensing the Shavian wit and wisdom. Ball plays this octogenarian with vigor, energy, and briskness. As Ellie Dunn, Robin Evan Willis is pragmatic without regret as she prepares to accept Boss Mangan, only to discover her real soul-mate elsewhere. Then she is bright, joyful and even wise. As Hesione Hushabye, Deborah Hay is compelling. She is so physically confident in Hesione’s skin as a flirt, sensual, and alluring. The body language is easy and graceful. And she is formidably intelligent when speaking Shaw’s words. She inhabits the soul, brain and body of this intriguing character. Ariadne Utterword’s brittle, snobbishness is played well by Laurie Paton. And it’s touching that Ariadne is so wounded when her father refuses to recognize her. As Hector Hushabye, Blair Williams is dashing, charming, very well mannered and always inventive.

George Bernard Shaw intended Heartbreak House to be a serious drama. The reality is of course a serious comedy. But the play doesn’t diminish the important, urgent things that were on Shaw’s mind at the time: the idleness and irresponsibility of certain classes to navigate through the world; the coming of war; greed; and the triumph of love and finding a soul mate.

This strong, thoughtful production of Heartbreak House is the opening of the Shaw Festival’s 50th anniversary season. It’s a terrific way to begin.

Heartbreak House plays at the Festival Theatre until October 7.

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