by Lynn on July 26, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Dance sequences and puppetry by Alexis Milligan
Music direction and original music by Paul Sportelli
Cast: Neil Barclay
Kyle Blair
Julia Course
Kristi Frank
Patrick Galligan
Élodie Gillett
Jeff Irving
Patty Jamieson
Sarena Parmar
Jacqueline Thair
Michael Therriault
Jay Turvey
Jenny L. Wright
Shawn Wright

A valiant, committed cast tries to lift this dumbed-down, misguided production that does little to serve Shaw’s play.

The Story. Androcles and the Lion is a fable about goodness, faith and a lion who never forgets a kindness. Androcles and his whining wife Megaera are on a jungle path. They are arguing. She’s tired and pampered and wants to stop walking. He is considerate but they need to get to the next village before nightfall. They have been hounded out of their home for religious reasons. She is fed up and attempts to leave but stumbles on a lion that is sleeping. The stumble wakes it. The Lion is suffering from a thorn in its paw. And since Androcles loves all animals almost better than people, he takes the thorn out of the paw and gives comfort to the Lion. All is well and they part. But then Androcles and others are captured and taken to Rome where they will either be fed to the lions or forced into combat in the Coliseum. Interestingly Androcles and his wife seem to have become separated along the way. When he is captured, she is nowhere to be found.

The Production. Before the production proper begins the cast individually and casually come out and chat up people in the audience. They introduce themselves; find out who they are and how they are, why they might have chosen that play; how their day has gone. Some actors hold a coloured ball in their hand. If the audience member wants to be involved in the action of the play, he/she is given a coloured ball. There are five coloured balls.

After this up close and personal stuff the cast move away from the audience, form a circle looking inwards (centre stage) and sing a hymn. Then the person who has been chosen to be the MC for the performance (Julia Course in my performance) explains the rules of the games with the balls etc.

Those in the audience with a ball could throw it on stage any time during the play. The colour of the ball indicates a different result. A certain colour (can’t remember which one and it doesn’t matter) means the cast will sing a hymn; another colour means a cast member will recite a portion of the Preface or the Epilogue to the play; another coloured ball means a cast member will tell a story that pertains to that performance and another colour means a cast member will tell the audience what he/she is thinking at the moment the ball is tossed on the stage. The last ball is special and is a lightening round of the actors commenting.

When an audience member with a coloured ball tosses the ball on stage, the play is interrupted and depending on the colour of the ball, the action is taken (either the cast sings a hymn—they learned nine of them—tell a story pertaining to the play, tell what they are thinking…..). When that action is completed the play continues.

An accommodating person in the audience is chosen to play the Lion. And finally the audience is asked to choose how a pathway in the jungle should be constructed: with benches or something else (I’ve blanked on what the other thing was). The audience chooses benches. The cast set up benches in a zig-zaggy manner representing the path on which Androcles and his lady-wife are walking. Once this is done the ‘production’ finally begins.

As with other Tim Carroll directed productions the house lights in the theatre are generally ‘up’ so that the audience and the cast can see each other. When Carroll was at Stratford for a few seasons he explained that having the lights up referenced ‘original practices’ of producing theatre as in Shakespeare’s day. (What this has to do with Shaw is a mystery, but I digress).

The MC reads the stage directions and the rest of the cast play the parts. The stage directions are important for the part of the Lion (who has no lines) because that part is all stage directions (put up a paw; lick the paw etc.), with perhaps a growl or two. In the production I saw an accommodating man from the audience named John played the Lion with focus and creative attention to the stage directions.

I am grateful for every single actor in this production. No matter how large or small the part, these actors instil every second of their characterizations with commitment, focus and creativity. As Androcles, Patrick Galligan is the most courtly, considerate accommodating husband to his hectoring wife Megaera (Jenny L. Wright). He is coaxing, gently urging and patient with this impossible woman. With the Lion he’s caring as well, even though Shaw has him talking in baby-talk to the creature. As Megaera, Jenny L. Wright plays her with finesse and not with knock-down aggression. There is always subtlety in Wright’s work and her characters are vivid because of it. Besides being the MC, Julia Course plays Lavinia a Christian prisoner who is regal, intellectual and charms a Roman Captain of the guards played with sombre seriousness by Kyle Blair. The banter between these two opposites is wary but the attraction between them is obvious. Ferrovius is a Christian with a gladiator’s sensibility. Jeff Irving plays him with a ferocity that he tries in vain to keep in check. It’s a performance that is startling and hilarious.

It is jarring when a ball is gently tossed on stage. The flow of the performance is interrupted while the cast puts its attention on the ball—do they sing a hymn…? Who ever has to contend with the ball shifts gears momentarily and puts all his/her focus into dealing with that interruption. This too is done almost seamlessly and then they return to the play. Whether the audience can shift gears so easily and then get back to the nuts and bolts of the play is a different matter.

One must ask how does this ball tossing, games playing enhance the play or the experience of watching it? How does Mr. Carroll think this serves the playwright? Answer: It doesn’t. If anything it stops the action and the story telling and diminishes the play, as if what Shaw has to say is irrelevant. This is community theatre or rehearsal hall games at best.

As I said the saving grace of this misguided, badly thought out production of course is the cast. They will always rise to the occasion and try and make sense of the director’s folly. They will do it with commitment, good will, talent, understanding and grace. Bless them.

Comment. Director Tim Carroll has written a program note in which he muses on and assumes Bernard Shaw’s intentions and purposes with respect to Androcles and the Lion. Carroll’s assumptions and conclusions are so mind-boggling in their misrepresentation they illuminate how this production could have gone so far off the rails.

Carroll says: “Bernard Shaw seems to have rejoiced in the genre-busting nature of Androcles and the Lion. In it, he mixes romantic comedy, social satire, political commentary, religious rumination, children’s pantomime and vaudevillian slapstick. He says to the audience, in effect, “you sort it out”.


Shaw never left anything so important as his meaning, intention, purpose or anything else up to the vagaries of the audience. All one need do is look at his extensive stage directions describing in detail everything from the look of the set to the colour of a character’s eyes to realize that. Then there are the extensive prefaces that discourse on aspects, philosophies and theories in his plays. The preface for Androcles and the Lion is twice as long as the play itself! Shaw is known for his deep, dense plays with a philosophical message and Androcles and the Lion is no different. It’s funny and charming but Shaw riffs on faith, religion, Christianity, piety, honour, forgiveness etc. in the work.

Tim Carroll writes further: “I hope we have taken up the challenge of staging the play in the spirit of Shaw himself….I believe the deepest way we can carry on Shaw’s work is to make theatre a kind of two-way experience, he believed it should be. Thus we will constantly involve the audience—though no one will ever be put on the spot or cajoled.”


If Mr. Carroll has misinterpreted Shaw’s mixing of genres to “you sort it out,” doesn’t it follow that he would not know what ‘the spirit of Shaw himself’ was in order to stage the play? It seems so.

I have to wonder what Mr. Carroll thinks the audience is doing when they watch a play if not to be involved, ‘experiencing’ and engaging in the play.

This is what the audience does in a play, Shaw’s or otherwise: after they have made the commitment to being there, buying the ticket at considerable expense in this case and often travelling long distances on lousy roads: they sit facing the stage and listen, hear, see, watch, look, ponder, weight and assess the arguments presented by the characters; they judge the characters as good or bad conveyers of the playwright’s message; they decide if the argument is sound or not; they evaluate the acting, and the application of the play to their own lives, and they do it as they are keenly, carefully involved audiences in the play. And they also have to remember to breathe and swallow.

What in the world is Tim Carroll thinking when he thinks he has to do more to involve the audience? This is not a production in the spirit of Shaw. It’s a production that hasn’t been thought through by a director who has misinterpreted the writing of the playwright.

In an interview with me on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm June 2, 2017, Mr. Carroll said that Shaw’s aim in his plays was to entertain. I regret I didn’t challenge him on that and ask for his definition of ‘entertain.’ Some people are entertained by a silly farce or glitzy musical. Some are entertained by a good production of King Lear where everyone dies. A few get their jollies by reading Schopenhauer.

I only have Shaw’s words to know that what he wanted to do was to educate, instruct, hector, lecture, philosophise to, dictate to and inform his audiences before anything else, humour notwithstanding. As for Tim Carroll’s assumption that Shaw wanted to ‘entertain’, that seems to be dispelled in the scholarly essay by Michel Pharand in the same Androcles and the Lion program for the Shaw Festival as Mr. Carroll’s piece. In it Mr. Pharand notes an interview with Bernard Shaw September 2, 1913, the day after the opening in London of Androcles and the Lion, in which Shaw complained about all the laughter of the audience. It went on so long and loud it extended the performance from 70 minutes to 95 minutes. You say Shaw wanted to entertain, Mr. Carroll? Not bloody likely.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Began: June 6, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 7, 2017.
Cast: 14; 7, men, 7 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes to 2 hours 20 minutes.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Kent James July 26, 2017 at 11:16 am

Hi Lynn:

You are such a good writer, and the depth of your knowledge of and love for the theatre is unfathomable.

Can’t you get someone to read these things, and edit out the “temper tantrum” parts? There’s so much interesting and valuable content and context and insight, but it can get buried in personal nastiness and hyperbole. (Unless you read it several times, and ignore the personal nastiness and hyperbole… oh wait… is that what you were going for?)

For instance:

“How does Mr. Carroll think this serves the playwright? Answer: It doesn’t.”

should at least be phrased

“How does Lynn Slotkin think this serves the playwright? Answer: She thinks it doesn’t.”

But to continue

“And she hates it with the heat of a thousand suns. And chances are she’s going to come back to it again, in a digression that she won’t edit out, in a review of another Tim Carroll play 5 years from now when he tries something else that she doesn’t like.”

would be unnecessary, wouldn’t it?

Staging the play in the spirit of Shaw doesn’t have to mean staging it in a way that Shaw would have chosen or lecture. It can means honouring the intent that you talked about: educate, instruct, hector, lecture, philosophise to, dictate to, inform and to do so through an entertainment. (Your reviews do the same thing.)

I came out of it impressed, as you were, by the focus and commitment of the cast, and also by the success of the modes of interaction. I generally hate that stuff, but it was managed in a way that didn’t make the audience uncomfortable, and served the story in interesting and unexpected ways. Someone in that cast must really have good instincts for selecting a great Lion.

But yes, your mileage may vary when it comes to the success of Mr. Carroll’s approach. We liked it, you hated it, and having read your piece we know why you hated it (and what you liked about it, the actors, although that’s not what we’re taking away from your review because they get one paragraph – albeit a large one – and a bit out of twenty-five).

(And yes, our mileage may vary when it comes to your style, but nobody will ever say you didn’t let us know how you felt, or that you left us guessing why you felt that way, or that you didn’t know your stuff.)

Best regards,