by Lynn on June 29, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Written by John Murrell, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Geneva. Directed by Blair Williams. Set by Camellia Koo. Costumes by Victoria Wallace. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Original music by Zachary Florence. Starring: Neil Barclay, Diana Donnelly, Patrick Galligan, Claire Jullien, Kevin McGarry, Jeff Meadows, Moya O’Connell, Ric Reid, Sanjay Talwar.

The Shaw Festival thought some of George Bernard Shaw’s later and lesser known plays might do with a bit of a brush-up. So last year it commissioned Michael Healey to do an adaptation of On the Rocks which Shaw billed as “A Political Comedy.” Healey knows his way around comedy and politics seems to fascinate him too. It was an interesting fit.

This year noted Canadian playwright, John Murrell, adapts Geneva, a play also a comedy and also focused on the political, only in this case the play is subtitled “Another Political Extravaganza.” Geneva premiered in Poland in 1938.

Just to reference Geneva, it’s about ordinary people wanting justice against tyrants; bully dictators being obnoxious; and the folly and failure of diplomacy. With Peace In Our Time John Murrell also gives his adaptation a Canadian perspective without changing the time period.

We are in Geneva at an office of the International Committee for Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. Already I’m laughing—a sentence full of oxymoron.

Intellectual Co-operation? And International at that? And a League of Nations who rarely agree? Hilarious.

Belle Browning, from Ohio, is the secretary of this office. There are no other people there. The place is run-down, a bit shoddy. Nothing really happens there. Belle is bored.

But then Joseph Rubinstein, a German-Jewish man, arrives and wants to lodge a complaint against the person who runs his country because of the treatment of his fellow Jews. Belle has never experienced this before. She’s feeling rather emboldened and offers to write a letter of complaint for the gentleman to the head office of the League of Nations.

Next comes Darcy Middleman,  a Canadian eh, who is loaded with frustration at how things are run both there and in Canada eh, and wants to complain. Belle offers to do another letter. Then Doña Dolores Ochoa, a flamboyant Spanish woman carrying a gun in her purse, wants the Committee to issue a murder warrant, resulting in another letter. Belle is in her glory.

The Secretary of the League of Nations takes notice. Belle is promoted and gets rather big headed. The upshot is that three notable dictators are summoned to the High Court at The Hague. Will they appear to hear what the court has to say against them?

Is John Murrell true to Shaw in this adaptation? I think he is. Murrell is a gifted playwright and has respect for his fellow writers and yes, is true to Shaw but with his own spin. This being Shaw there is a lot of philosophising on the nature of diplomacy, procedure. And there is wicked irony when a flake like Belle is promoted to a position that is way beyond her capabilities, but manages to get some pressing questions addressed by the High Court.

And I find the title Peace In Our Time ironic and hilarious because there is no such thing as peace and certainly not in our time. Murrell being cheeky?  It speaks volumes that nothing is resolved.

But another serious matter the arises at the end of the play puts even this serious stuff as marauding dictators into ironic focus. The very survival of the planet is at stake and no one can do anything about it. There is a lot of media spin to deflect the urgency of the matter, and that too is one of the facts of life we accept in our times.

As for the Murrell spin of his own, in Geneva the Belle character is British with her own sense of superiority, although Shaw doesn’t giver he a proper name, just a pronoun, “She”. In Peace in Our Time much is made by Belle that she is from Ohio and no-nonsense. Much is made by Darcy Middleman the Canadian of the foibles of his country with many references to loopy Prime Ministers and politics. So our Canadian audience will get the references.

The production is directed by Blair Williams a respected actor who has done a lot of work over the years at the Shaw Festival. He’s branched into directing and he’s gifted.

He has a keen sense of the humour of a line, the characters who speak them and the situation it serves and.  The pace goes like the wind. It’s a farce—sometimes slapsticky, but how else do you make a serious point if not through humour? Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator as an example anyone?

And Williams achieves the right tone. Just the right amount of arrogance from Belle and the same but different from the Europeans she has to deal with.

The cast shines. As Belle, Diana Donnelly has that easy superiority of a person from OHIO!!! And not just American, when faced with this other strange world that she knows nothing about. As the snooty Secretary to the League of Nations, Jeff Meadows is snooty, condescending and increasingly frustrated at having to deal with the bubble-headed Belle.

In the flashy part of Doña Dolores Ochoa, Claire Jullien flaunts her Spanish accent and flashes her well made up eyes. When Doña Dolores learns that there are cameras in the courtroom which she believes can see through her clothes, she is both appalled and delighted. Her reaction fluctuates between being demure, flirty to the camera, hiding her face, showing it and then fluttering into her seat. Jullien’s performance is a poem of invention.

As Darcy Middleman (the Canadian, eh), Andrew Bunker is all moral indignation and frustration trying to convey his concerns to this simple woman from Ohio. The always fastidious and elegant Patrick Galligan plays the British Foreign Secretary with just the right balance of diplomacy, suaveness, and moral indignation. As the Senior Judge, Sanjay Talwar while very thoughtful, seems a bit light in the part, and misses a certain gravitas.

While Shaw gives the three dictators made up names to hide their identity, even though we know who they are, John Murrell does not go in for such subterfuge. His dictators are Il Duce, Der Führer, and El Generalisimo. They are played with verve by Neil Barclay (Il Duce) who bellows and flaunts; Ric Reid (Der Führer) who is comically formidable with his sneer and arm waving salute; and Lorne Kennedy (El Generalisimo) who is loaded with quirks, ticks, and an accent that is a marvel.

Blair Williams got me to think about so much in his production, not the least of which is “Why is it so difficult for us to co-operate?” as per his program note. I disagree. Most of us do co-operate. It’s the exceptions who make the trouble. Those three dictators spoiled it for the other characters in the play and for the hapless folks who are citizens in their countries.

Something to think about.

Peace in our Time plays at the Court House Theatre until October 12.

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