Theatre in Wales

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Treat of a Comedy for the Season of Summer

At Theatr Clwyd

Arms and the Man- Clwyd Theatr Cymru , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru , May 8, 2014
At Theatr Clwyd by Arms and the Man- Clwyd Theatr Cymru A Bernard Shaw production is an irregular sighting. The last in Wales was five years ago, on the same stage “Pygmalion” given a treatment of pugnacious intelligence. “Arms and the Man” is an earlier Shaw, shaking free from the shadow of Ibsen and finding the voice that was to become his own. It is a play of fine, careless foolishness. Director Emma Lucia opens with a flourish; a deep blue sky a-twinkle with stars, a great silver moon in descent. The first act is a little unsettling, Shaw jocular about the remnants of a battle that is raging in the streets outside the home of the privileged Petkoff clan. Not so far away, after all, real deaths are occurring in 2014 in a country two borders distant from Bulgaria. Happily, the later acts settle into a comedy of romance of much enjoyment.

Shaw can do structure and as a veteran critic he understood comedy. “Arms and the Man” does it in classic style, with the cover-up, the incriminating item, complication engendering complication. It is not so common that modern writers understand how to use props. Shaw’s fellow Irish writer- Irish of Elephant and Castle, that is- Martin McDonagh has always understood their use and value. Shaw’s women tend to be of a kind. They may have broken the mould in the time in a kind of Fabiany, emancipated way and it is good that they do not simper. Where the passions are concerned it is all pretty well rational and thought-out. Antonia Kinlay’s Raina is a mesmeric, elegant presence, but Shaw is most at ease when she is trading epigrams with her kind-of-suitor Swiss mercenary Daniel Hawksford’s “chocolate soldier” Captain Bluntschli.

Bluntshli is heir to a far-off fortune whose four thousand tablecloths are just the beginning. He is also a pragmatist of conflict. When called upon to duel over Raina’s hand he declares that he belongs to the artillery. His favoured weapon then is to be a machine gun. His antagonist is Major Sergius Saranoff in resplendent blue uniform with braid and long-fringed epaulettes in gold. In Daniel Llewelyn-Williams delicious playing he is a preening, posturing figure, apt to slap his face in reprimand and emit a wail of sorrow for himself. Even in victory in a cavalry charge he laments “I won the battle the wrong way.” Bold in battle he is not so adept with his betrothed.

Shaw’s structure means that Mark Bailey’s house for the Petkoffs comes in two parts. The house and garden are a sun-dappled, wooden Swiss cuckoo clock of a mansion. Raina’s angled-ceiling top-floor room comes draped in Turkish-styled rugs. It is not often that a set’s exit merits mention. But Bailey’s first act design glides backward to the accompaniment of stirring strings from composer Colin Towns with a heavily Slavic influence.

The cast has a trio playing the elder generation. Siận Howard is mother Catherine appalled and agitated at her daughter’s indiscretion. Robert Blythe is patriarch Paul twirling his riding crop and little impressed with the innovation of an electric bell to call the servants. Simon Holland Roberts is trusted retainer Nicola, needed as part of a romantic sub-plot with Michelle Luther’s Louka. There is a lot of fun to be had in the swivelling affections and twists of plot.

Philip Pullman is author of a couple of sparky programme notes. He has some good points. Shaw “wrote with a clarity and limpidity that is almost Mozartian.” He defends the critique that “Shaw is cold, all head and no heart.” “There’s warmth in him too” says Pullman. That is true. But a telegram late on brings news of a father’s death and it is rendered as a plot point. The father who dies in the world off the stage is more than a plot point.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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