Shaw Festival Reviews: The Millionairess, Trouble in Tahiti & His Girl Friday
Canadian author, Hermine Steinberg, reviews 3 of the Shaw Festival’s newest plays.
Listening to the news prior to going to The Millionairess is like hearing a storm is coming and then it being explained to you in parable – Gods plotting against humanity to ensure their obedience and loyalty; never again having the gall to interfere in affairs that are beyond their comprehension. A bit over dramatic? Well, you may not think so after being introduced to Epifania Ognisanti de Parerga – the central character in Shaw's comedy about money, power, and relationships.
Shaw wrote The Millionairess in 1934 when he was 79 years old. It has been described as a play in which Shaw is '' grinding an ax, but the sparks refuse to fly.'' Luckily, under Blair Williams creative direction and with Nicole Underhay playing the lead role, The Millionairess is both entertaining and thought provoking. There is also a first-rate supporting cast which includes Steven Sutcliffe as her lover, Martin Happer as her husband, Kevin Bundy as her lawyer, Kevin Hanchard as the object of her desire, and Robin Willis as her female counterpoint (and husband's lover). Michael Ball and Wendy Thatcher also brilliantly portray a poor couple trying to survive the only way they know how.
Cameron Porteous's set design is bold and imaginative. His thematic use of colour successfully underscores the dynamic and outlandish nature of this play.
The basic plot of the play sounds like a fairy tale in reverse. Instead of a poor and abused girl finding her prince and living happily ever after, it is about the witch – and she happens to be the wealthiest woman in the world. She is self-absorbed, ruthless, highly volatile and treats the world as if it were there to satisfy her every whim. Epifania has lived by a rule of her late father, who told her that she must not marry until she finds a man who can turn 150 into 50,000 in six months. Unfortunately, she found Alastair Fitzfassenden, a tennis player and boxer, who somehow pulls it off. Epifania marries him and rapidly loses interest – which is a good thing because he has grown to fear and despise her. Alastair takes up with Patricia Smith (the good witch who manipulates him with unconditional support and kindness) while Epifania amuses herself with aristocratic but penniless Adrian Blenderbland until he makes the mistake of criticizing her father and then she nearly kills him. Late into the play Epifania meets an Egyptian doctor who is dedicated to helping the poor and rejects her. This, of course, challenges her and increases her desire to win him over by agreeing to the test his mother insisted he give to any woman he might consider marrying - start with only 35 shillings and live for six months, which she promptly does, creating two business successes in a row. The doctor who is actually repelled by her materialistic and unwomanly ways, is ultimately won over by her uniquely strong pulse – that's right, we are talking about the rate her blood is being pumped out of her heart. Obviously, symbolic for her powerful life force but when it comes down to it a bit lame even for a satire, and for me a very unsatisfying and weak ending.
Despite some of the shortcomings of the play itself, Underhay's dynamic force keeps the pace going through what could be a lot of talk and silliness. Steven Sutcliffe is outstanding as the suffering and abused ex-lover while Robin Willis, who plays the woman who has stolen her husband's affection, demonstrates her acting prowess by creating a strong presence for a character who could be easily overwhelmed by the bold and brash Epifania.
What this play is really about is seen far more clearly on the page rather than on the stage. In Shaw's Preface on Bosses to The Millionairess, his philosophy about leaders and power are made clear – "a born boss is one who rides roughshod over us by some mysterious power that separates him from our species and makes us fear him: that is, hate him"and “ordinary individuals who are helpless in their hands." His 27 page preface passionately argues that these superior beings are meant to organize and improve society – as was happening in Russia. In fact, in the alternative ending he provides, Shaw underscores his belief that Russian communism is the ideal by having the Doctor and Epifania form a union and commit their talents to creating a communist revolution in Britain.
Epifania is Shaws paragon of superior ability who wants a more perfect society- at any price. As the other characters point out – no one wants to live with her but they all somehow allow her to overpower them. She is tyrannical and in an era of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and other dictators that dominated the world stage it is difficult to understand Shaw admiring and actually promoting this line of thinking.
Watching the play today, one can imagine Epifania representing the top one percent many people are protesting against. As today, economic hardship was common in the 1930s and financial systems were failing due to decisions made by arrogant individuals who believed they knew how to run the world – ``masters of the universe`` who protected their interests at all costs and left the world in a shambles to be reorganized, ìmproved, and exploited by ruthless men who claimed they had big and noble ideas.
The Millionairess is a romp and satire in the traditional sense but not Shaw`s better works. However, this skillful production transforms it into great entertainment. It also may serve as a parable of our times – not quite as Shaw may have intended , but definitely one worth contemplating and discussing as we brace ourselves for the economic and environmental crisis looming over the horizon, just as they did in the 1930s.