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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre

By Matt Wolf

  Simon Rusell Beale and Hayley Atwell/PH:Catherine Ashmore

The London rehabilitation of Bernard Shaw continues apace with Nicholas Hytner's thrilling production of Major Barbara, which comes in-between Marianne Elliott's scorching reappraisal of Saint Joan, seen in the same auditorium (the Olivier) last summer, and the London transfer from the Theatre Royal, Bath, of the Old Vic's Pygmalion, directed by Peter Hall and coming in May. What, then, do we learn about Shaw from Hytner, who has gone on record announcing himself as something of a late-convert to this dramatist? For starters, that a 1905 play hailed as triumphantly topical when Sybil Thorndike led its 1929 London revival is still very much a play for today. And that Simon Russell Beale's range is capable of seemingly infinite expansion: his performance as Undershaft, father to the Salvation Army Major (played by Hayley Atwell) of the somewhat misleading title (surely, it's Undershaft's play), sounds notes that even this supreme actor hasn't quite hit before.

To start with, there's Russell Beale's voice, which marks the most dramatic example of a stage actor transforming himself vocally since Derek Jacobi acquired a new, and fearsome, sonority in Michael Grandage's production of Don Carlos several years ago. Sounding newly gravelly, and with not a trace of the occasional plumminess that was so irresistible in, say, Monty Python's Spamalot, Russell Beale's Undershaft exists in every sense at a considerable remove from the clipped, poshly spoken tones of not just his wife, Clare Higgins's wickedly funny Lady Britomart, but of a family that, it soon becomes clear, he doesn't really know: making his entrance in the first of the play's four acts, he looks long and hard at Atwell's dark-eyed Barbara,as if in recognition both of some kind of kindred spirit and of his nemesis, as well. This is a man who doesn't need to sound clever or waspish in the milieu in which he moves - that of profit,gunpowder, and ammunition, a hard-nosed realm that exists very much in contrast to a daughter who sometimes seems like a dry run for that other Salvation Army heroine, Sister Sarah Brown, in Guys and Dolls. Furthering the musicals connection, I doubt I'm the only one who had flashes of Bill Sykes from Oliver! during the bruising second-act exertions of Ian Burfield's Bill Walker, the character who most forcefully pushes us away from the drawing-room terrain of an opening act that reads like Shaw's riposte to The Importance of Being Earnest, with their shared talk of foundlings and their fire-breathing female wits.

No one acts intelligence battling emotion better than Russell Beale, as his definitive Hamlet (among other performances) has made clear, and if you didn't suspect that the ostensible monster of Shaw's play could move you, think again. Playing a zealot in deed if not in name, and someone described by the young Greek professor, Cusins, as a most infernal old rascal, Russell Beale never once sentimentalizes the character,just as Undershaft won't succumb to sentimentalizing the people in the manner embarked upon by Barbara and her aversion to her father's factory of death. It's possible to see this role as the flip side to the Uncle Vanya so excoriatingly acted by Russell Beale at the Donmar nearly six years ago: whereas Vanya has aspirations to greatness that it is his fate never to achieve, Undershaft inhabits a powerful monetarist universe beyond convenient moralising or ready-made catch phrases. There's a deli


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