Major Barbara @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Simon Russell Beale
Clare Higgins
Hayley Atwell
Paul Ready

directed by
Nicholas Hytner
Written over a century ago, Shaws polemic against poverty still feels incredibly pertinent. And in Nicholas Hytners new production, just as in the Nationals recent Shaw staging, Marianne Elliotts exhilarating Saint Joan, it has a power that feels startlingly contemporary.

It begins with Lady Britomart Undershaft finding herself forced to get in touch with her estranged husband in order to secure her childrens financial futures. While one daughter is due to marry money, the other, Barbara, has devoted herself to saving souls at the Salvation Army. Their father Andrew is an arms magnate who owns a vast weapons factory. To the zealous Barbara, her fathers money is tainted. So they make a deal, he will visit her shelter and see the work she does there, if she will then visit his factory. Thus the groundwork is set for a battle of ideas.

The play quickly moves away from the genteel and familiar drawing room setting of the opening scenes where the wonderful Claire Higgins holds court in true Lady Bracknell fashion to the drab, grey expanse of the Salvation Army shelter in the East End, a place where violence and desperation are part of life and the Salvationists offer the poor a sustaining slice of bread and treacle along with prayer and the promise of Gods love. Naturally many are apt to declare themselves saved as long as they get fed in exchange.

Undershaft argues that poverty is a barrier to true spiritual discourse and that, when the body is starving, it is hard to concentrate on higher matters. At his factory the workers are well provided for on every level and this makes them freer people. Barbara, however, believes that money only corrupts, particularly when it comes from the coffers of men who manufacture whisky or, worse, weapons, for a living. So she is appalled when the shelter accepts money from her father in order to stay afloat, even if it would have had to close without it.

Simon Russell Beale plays Undershaft with quiet authority and wry edge of humour. There is something very moving in his rarely voiced, but still tangible, love and admiration for his daughter and his affection for his estranged wife. He is, of course, ably matched by Claire Higgins but Hayley Atwell is rather underwhelming as Barbara. She conveys her character’s bright-eyed sense of self-belief, but doesnt give her much beyond that but then its something of a one note role. Paul Ready, as Barbaras Greek scholar fiance Adolphus Cusins, has to grapple with the plays most ambiguous character and, for a while, struggles to find the right tone.

In the final scenes, set in Undershafts wonderfully realised weapons factory rows upon rows of missiles filling the Olivier stage Shaws arguments rather unravel, or at least they do from a contemporary perspective. And Hytner acknowledges that fact, giving this last bout of verbal jousting between Undershaft, Barbara and Cusins an ominous undertone. The Great War was still some years away when the play was first performed and Hytner takes care to make the audience very aware of that fact, to remind them of what was to come.

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