Text of Broadcast reviews: Arms and the Man and The Charity that Began at Home

by Lynn on May 16, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two plays were reviewed on Friday, May 16, 2014 CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. Arms and the Man at the Shaw Festival until October 18. The Charity That Began at Home plays at the Shaw Festival until October 11.

The guest host was Phil Taylor

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre talk time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What treats do you have for us today?

The Shaw Festival opened last weekend so I think it fitting that I review Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw –his satire about the folly of war and with the folly of idealized romance thrown in.

And the second play is The Charity that Began at Home by St. John Hankin, a contemporary of Shaw’s, who satirizes the whole business of doing good, being charitable and kind to less fortunates without thinking of the consequences.

Tell us about Arms and the Man.

First premiered in London in 1894. It’s about the folly of war and the dangers of those who romanticize it. Shaw has picked the Serbo-Bulgarian war as his example.

Captain Bluntschli is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs because it was the first country he came to from Switzerland. He sees how ill trained and badly organized the Bulgarians are when he witnesses Major Sergius Saranoff disobeying orders and leading a charge on horseback right into the line of fire of the Serbs. The Serbs had machine guns and could have slaughtered the Bulgarians. But they also had the wrong ammunition and couldn’t shoot those guns.

As luck would have it, Bluntschli is trying to escape the Bulgarians and finds himself climbing into the bedroom of Raina Petkoff, the fiancée of Sergius Petkoff, the pompous buffoon who nearly got his men killed. Raina is a spoiled, entitled young woman and looks at the war as romantic and very proud of Sergius.

She and her mother fancy themselves the leading family in Bulgaria—their house has an electric bell to summon the servants and they have a library. You get the sense there is only one book in that library and Raina is reading it. But she is charmed by Bluntschli—she gives him three chocolate crèmes as he is starving.

Things get tricky when the war ends and it’s Bluntschli who organizes all the details of peace, and he does it in the Petkoff home. The trick is not to let Mr. Petkoff, who also fought in the war, or Sergius know that he’s actually met Raina.

So what is Shaw satirizing?

Practically everything. Shaw is satirizing so much here: the folly of war; the romanticizing of a fool who disobeys orders to seek some glory, and by a fluke of luck, is triumphant. He’s also making fun of people who think personal hygiene, like washing everyday, is silly.

Bluntschli is the example of everything that is civilized and decent. He washes daily. He knows how terrible war is—he does not have ammunition for his gun, he has chocolate instead like any professional soldier. He is efficient when concluding the declarations of peace. And Shaw also has a go at romance in that it should be classless. While Sergius is engaged to Raina, his real soul mate is the maid, Louka. Raina’s soul mate is obvious.

How is the production?

It’s good. It’s in the small Royal George Theatre so how to suggest the bigness and quirkiness of the Petkoff house, is the challenge. And director Morris Panych and set designer Ken MacDonald do a lovely job in conveying that.

In the first act, the set of Raina’s bedroom is all girly and the colour of the crème centre of a chocolate cream bon-bon. To show the folly of how dear the Petkoff ladies hold their electric bell, MacDonald has a wall of interlocking gears on either side of two French doors, and whenever the doors are flung opened, every gear begins to revolve. When the doors are closed, the gears stop.

In his program note, MacDonald said that he envisions the play takes place inside a cuckoo clock—hence the gears, with a tip of the hat to the watches of Switzerland.

Panych has brought out the humour in the play without going for laughs just for their own sake. Raina often looks out to the audience and not at the person spoken too, perhaps to show her other worldliness? She’s not quite of this world, with her fantasy ideas. But she does look at Bluntschli because he represents a world so foreign to her own.

As Raina, Kate Besworth, is a diminutive dynamo. She is haughty in that flighty youthful way. Her emotions turn on a dime when she thinks Sergius is being slighted to being charmed by Bluntschli.

As Sergius, Martin Happer has his own kind of haughtiness, that of the pompous buffoon. He has all these interesting physical tics and poses that show off that show off. When he says he never apologizes, he holds his two fists together in front of him, and you get a real sense of how hard it is for him to seem weak.

And as Bluntschli, Graeme Somerville is courtly, pragmatic and loaded with common sense in other words, a Swiss who is also funny and probably doesn’t mean to be.

It’s a strong company, and this is a good production of Arms and the Man.

And now, The Charity that Began at Home.


Written by St. John Hankin, a celebrated contemporary of Shaw. The Charity that Began at Home was first produced in London in 1906. It’s a satire about the whole attitude about generosity and charity to less fortunate and it all leads to disaster to a point.

We are in Lady Denison’s country home. Many objectionable guests are expected. Why has she invited them you might ask? It’s all Basil Hylton’s fault. He believes that people should be kind and charitable to those less fortunate. He is a philosopher and ‘preacher’ who goes to the people. He has created his own church, the Church of Humanity.

In this case several objectionable people are invited because no one else will have them. By inviting them they will be happy to have been included.

We have General Bonsor, a bore if ever there was one, who couldn’t tell a story in less than an hour if his life depended on it—full of people you never heard of and how they were related to more people you never heard of. Miss Triggs is an uptight, dried up prune of a woman, a teacher, dressed in black, always in a bad mood who constantly bashes at the pillows in chairs to fluff them up. Hugh Verreker is a charming bounder, a hedonist.

This attitude of helping goes to the servants as well. Lady Denison has hired Soames, a footman, because he was fired elsewhere and she thought he would not get a job elsewhere. Lady Denison is also guided by her excessively good daughter who wants to help everybody, going so far as to want to marry Mr. Verreker in order to change him for the better.

Sometimes you want to squirt cold water at these people and tell them to smarten up.

What’s the playwright up to with this?

I think St. John Hankin is looking at a whole idea of charity and helpfulness. It’s ridiculous that you would invite people into your house that are horrible.

Or hiring servants who have been dismissed elsewhere and Lady Denison feels no one would take them on so she feels she should. The whole notion of I am my brother’s keeper taken to extremes. What you don’t hear is that people are responsible for their own lot in life to a large extent. If they aren’t invited out because they are miserable and bores, so what? That’s their doing. Without giving anything away one character does address this.

He calls off a relationship because he wouldn’t be able to measure up to the expectations and besides he likes the way he is and doesn’t want to change.

I’m sure people will be discussing whether he did a good thing or a selfish thing, long after they see the play, and I want people to see the play.

There’s also an interesting focus on the upper classes and their servants. Lady Denison takes no notice of them. She can ring for tea and wants the servants to be attentive but she’s unaware of them as people. Soames and a maid in the house have had an affair and the maid is now pregnant and of course upset.

Margery has noticed that the maid has not looked well and a week before wanted her to go to the doctor. Now we know why. How they solve the problem is a fascinating look at the class distinctions in England more than 100 years ago, and perhaps still going on now.

I love these almost lost treasures of plays that still have things to say today, and bravo for the Shaw Festival for putting them on.

Was it given a good production?

A terrific production. It’s directed by Christopher Newton. He has exquisite taste and so the set by William Schmuck of this beautifully appointed room with a garden outside, is divine. And Newton knows that world of the play and how to illuminate it to perfection.

The cast again is wonderful. The voice and body language is exaggerated for those times. Arms float in the air; the voices of the women are almost chirpy. As Lady Denison, Fiona Reid has a graciousness, and also a sense of being a bit out of it when it comes to dealing with all these objectionable people. As Margery, Julie Course is flighty, smiley, has a very good heart and it’s easily broken. Her Margery also notices people for themselves.

As Hylton, Graeme Somerville, is almost surrounded by a halo of goodness; quiet, selfless and pained when he learns his theory has backfired. And as Miss Triggs, I love Sharry Flett banging those chair-pillows; that sour, tight face expressing pure irritation.

The play is both funny and sobering and the production does it proud.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at www.slotkinletter.com On twitter @slotkinletter.

Arms and the Man
plays at the Shaw Festival until October 18.

The Charity that Began at Home
plays at the Shaw Festival until October 11.


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