Review: THE BARONESS AND THE PIG (at the Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on June 25, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Michael MacKenzie

Directed by Selma Dimitijevic

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Original music and sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Julia Course

Yanna McIntosh

Playwright Michael McKenzie tries to echo the social and philosophical issues in Shaw’s Pygmalion with poor results because the play is not very good and the production doesn’t help.

 The Story. Paris, France, sometime around 1880-90. The Baroness is in need of a maid. She seems to hire and fire them frequently and she can’t keep good help for the job. She finds her next maid in an unlikely place, a pig pen. The new maid was ‘discarded’ by her family when she was young and the child was brought up by the pigs. The Baroness is a student of the enlightenment and names the maid Emily after a Rousseau character. The Baroness feels that it is her responsibility to do what she can for the lower classes to improve their lives. So she takes in Emily to train her to greet guests and lay the table. It seems another servant named Jeannette does most of the work, teaching Emily the names of the cutlery, how to hold a tray with the guests’ visiting cards etc.

While the Baroness has a certain coolness towards Emily she does form a kind of bond with her. The Baroness receives a letter and two photographs from a ‘well-wisher’ regarding the Baron. He is a womanizer. She shares this information with Emily who does not understand the subtleties of what she is being told.

I don’t get a real sense that the Baroness has any feelings for Emily (Julia Course) except as a lower class person over whom she has power. Her commiserating with Emily about the Baron is more from a sense of loneliness of the Baroness than a close bond with Emily.

The Baroness (Yanna McIntosh) is usually short tempered with the simple Emily. Emily is eager to learn the facts. It’s the essences of situations she can’t grasp. And the Baroness keeps mentioning another servant named Jeannette who seems to be doing most of the teaching of how to do the job. We find out from the Baroness that Jeannette might be the one with the emotional connection to Emily and not the Baroness so let us see a play with Jeannette and Emily. That might be more in line with the echoes of the Pygmalion story.

At one point in the play Emily is in physical danger screaming out and the Baroness does nothing. What is one to make of that?

The Production. The set by Camellia Koo has low benches line the playing area with books and bedsheets neatly placed in the spaces below the benches. That means the audience is on all sides of the playing space. The director Selma Dimitrijevic is not adept in directing in the round. Too often a scene is played so that we are either looking at the actor’s back and therefore miss a lot of action in front of him or her or miss a bit of business that is visible only to part of the audience who are laughing at what they are seeing. It’s really frustrating being left out.

In the scene when the  Baroness receives the letter and two photographs telling her about her husband’s behavior,  instead of subtly turning to face all sides of the audience so they can see what she has been reading , Dimitrijevic has Yanna McIntosh as the Baroness stand still facing only one side of the audience at the  expense of the text.

McIntosh looks very regal in her white wig and stunning starched, stiff white dress—the angles of the dress make the ‘look’ so formidable one gets the sense the dress could use its own room.  McIntosh has a hauteur that is appropriate but with no wiggle room in the text to indicate she is anything but a manipulative, angry woman who uses the servants with whom to take out her ire.

The text makes better use of stage directions that tell us what is happening than the production does. There are sound effects of a door opening and closing and footfalls. From that we are to infer the Baron has returned home and is up to no good.  There are popping sounds without explanation. Are they representative of photographs? Why?

As Emily (the pig) Julia Course has an innocent, curious way with the character. She is in a new world and she wants to learn its complicated goings on. She has a genuine grace and sweetness, but soon learns of the cruel side of this world when she’s up against the violence of the visits of the baron and with the arrogance of the Baroness.

There is a clever bit of directorial business at the end, when Emily does learn how to defend herself,

All in all I found Dimitrijevic’s pace of the piece to be glacial and that goes for the temperature in that theatre–freezing with the air-conditioning blowing down relentlessly.

 Comment. Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival Artistic Director, writes in the forward to the text of the play, that his intension when he took the job of Artistic Director, was to explore new writing (The Orchard (After Chekhov) falls into this category. Wonderful play and production.  More on that to follow. (to be fair Jackie Maxwell, the previous Shaw Artistic Director was already exploring new writing during her tenure). And Tim Carroll also says he will search out plays (presumably Canadian) that have only had one production and give it another production at the Shaw Festival. The Baroness and the Pig falls into this category.

The production history of The Baroness and the Pig has been meager. It was written in 1993 and had a workshop production at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.  In 1998 it had a French language production in Montreal and an English production in Montreal in 2008. It was made into a film in 2003 and was not well received. Since then there has been  nothing until the Shaw produced it. There’s a reason for it not receiving more attention—it’s not a good play, and no amount of effort to suggest that this will be a “Canadian Classic” will change that. The depth of both the Pygmalion story and Shaw’s play Pygmalion, the subtlety, the philosophical exploration of an artist falling in love with his creation or a playwright exploring class distinctions is barely touched on in The Baroness and the Pig. Referring to Emily as the pig when referencing Pygmalion is barely clever. Alas the play is more a pig’s ear than a silk purse.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: June 20, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 6, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour and 50 minutes.



Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.