Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Shaw Redemption

When the plays all start to look the same--the same yo-yoing up and down and see-sawing across the stage to make "pictures", with people in intimate dialogue shouting at each other from opposite ends while dressing a turkey or undressing themselves--and all start to sound the same--the same characters distinguished by little ticks that recur in slightly different form at least twice more to provide the illusion of individuality and meaning--when sitting there becomes a matter of repressed depression followed by repressed screaming---well

it's time for something different. My travel budget (being zero) does not allow for much viewing elsewhere, let alone major stages. New York. London. Even San Francisco. So what's the answer, to escape from this brittle sameness?

Lately it's been a set of DVDs, British television productions of plays by George Bernard Shaw. First, there's Shaw: a playwright seldom done hereabouts, whose plays are more radically different than the supposedly innovative new shows. And for all their reputation as talky, walking ideas, they are well-made in a certain way, and certainly entertaining, besides entertaining ideas.

Then there's the acting. These productions seem mostly from the 1970s and 80s, so they often feature theatrical icons in their prime. Speaking of prime, the first one I saw was Maggie Smith in The Millionairess.

Maggie Smith in the early 1970s was not only a skillful actor with that indelible voice, she was beautiful. She photographs very beautifully in this play, which is basically a stage performance with some filmic inserts. And she was beautiful then, as I can attest, since I sat across the table from her at dinner for several hours. Well, she was sort of across and to the left, at the next table. (Yes, I've told this story before here. And I'm telling it again.) It was a theatre restaurant and bar in Boston, and I was accompanying another attractive woman, a TV theatre and film reviewer who later became the head of all PBS, Pat Mitchell. Pat actually had a better view of Maggie, but I was closer. (Later that evening I heard someone playing piano and singing and thought, he sounds like Joel Grey. I turned around to look. It was Joel Grey.)

For an "obscure" Shaw, The Millionairess is a treat. It also features Tom Baker in a pre-Doctor Who role. (This is a different production apparently from the BBC version, also with Maggie Smith, also available on DVD.)

Each of these DVDs actually has two plays. Mrs. Warren's Profession, a play that skewers capitalism more effectively than Michael Moore, is accompanied by You Never Can Tell, a precursor presumably of plays and film comedies with similar sorts of titles, and this one is energetic, both intelligent and happily funny. What a treat. The performances are wonderful.

The Devil's Disciple is not a very good play--the Burt Lancaster film is actually better, though it preserves only one speech, which Laurence Olivier happily delivers as General Burgoyne. But it is interesting, and has a nice pre-Picard performance by Patrick Stewart. Arms and the Man is lively, with probably the best performance I've seen by a bouyant, vibrant Helena Bonham Carter. Next I'm seeing Heartbreak House--I've seen another TV version several times, with Rex Harrison, but this one is with John Gielgud. There's a Pygmalion in the series but alas no Joan or Cleopatra.

These plays give fine actors great words, and they love it, glory in it, and show what they can really do. These plays are about something--issues of class, gender roles, politics, economics, war and peace--that we may need to mentally update and translate to our times, but are often very acute and timeless. And not just issues, but all kind of human concern illuminated by these flashing personalities that Shaw and these actors create.

The first couple of plays sent me to Shaw's prefaces, wonderful in themselves, and I found myself starting to read The Millionairess, hearing Maggie Smith say the lines all over again. I rented these DVDs from La Dolce Video (the new store on G that absorbed a lot of the Video Experience inventory.) But I think I'm going to buy the set. There are nights I need to hear some Shaw, or something. Some of those nights after an evening at the theatre.

Update 2014: I did buy the set.  And I've been enjoying them ever since.

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