Friday, August 16, 2013

Abbey Theatre, 'Major Barbara': What Price is Salvation Now?

Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Abbey Theatre
Aug 7-Sep 21

My review of Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw coming up just as soon as the vulgarity of it positively makes me ill ...

What price is salvation nowadays? Andrew Undershaft, the dynamite-maker in George Bernard Shaw's play from 1905, reckons £5,000 should cover it, or, failing that, to buy the Salvation Army.

The Undershaft munitions business is being eyed by Andrew's estranged wife, Lady Britomart, who is concerned about the incomes of her children: Stephen is a well-studied young man uncertain about the world, Sarah is engaged to a non-immediate millionaire, and Barbara has discharged her privileged living to be an officer in the Salvation Army while partnered to a professor of Greek. Lady Britomart's orchestration involves reuniting Andrew with his children, especially Stephen, who she envisions being heir to the Undershaft business. However, Andrew is drawn to Barbara instead, and wishes to win her over her moral code -  the Christian call for poverty and the exchange of breadcrumbs for confessions.

Shaw's language sings in an expertly tuned production by director Annabelle Comyn. With a swift and cutting delivery by Eleanor Methven as the Britomart matriarch, an intelligence-oozing Paul McGann as Undershaft, and comic turns from Aonghus Óg McAnally as Sarah's inarticulate husband Charles, this cunning cast makes this work whistle. Philip Stewart's choral music fills the auditorium as we look on Paul O'Mahony's gorgeous set, which fabulously unfurls from a library into a munitions factory at one point, earning some applause from the audience in the process. 

Clare Dunne gives us a glowing and poised Barbara, adding further emotional power as the Salvationist's principles begin to buckle. At her side, the spry Marty Rea accounts for the Greek professor's cleverness as well as his quandaries. Both give fantastic performances, charting the two characters as they become effectively entrapped in their beliefs.

Striking is the scope of Shaw's play as it presents the Undershaft cannon business and the stretch of its influence over government and everyday commerce. After all, this is the end product of the Industrial Revolution of the previous 150 years, where the circulation of money everywhere is influenced by the war manufacturers. The plays seeks to illuminate this hierarchy in society but also for us to accept it. 

When Andrew Undershaft offers the Salvation Army £5,000 and Barbara opposes it on the grounds of it being blood money, Shaw shows how a particular morality has become outmoded. Barbara's code operates on the submission of people and their surrender to God, but in a harshly Capitalist environment this will contain them to a life of poverty. A Capitalist god would condemn poverty a sin, and his is a vision that the world increasingly resembles. 

The price for salvation is not a figure but a change of mind. One has to accept the troubled hierarchy of society and work within the system. Only then can the likes of Major Barbara acquire the Devil's silver and use it to bring heaven to those who suffer.

What did everybody else think?

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