I'm currently in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival and the annual conference of the International Shaw Society.
My first day here in Canada, I saw Niagara Falls (IMPRESSIVE!) and then the festival's production of Androcles and the Lion.
Well, it's hard to top the Falls, but Shaw's little play can also be impressive. I was particularly struck by the Emperor claiming that he is the one being oppressed, not the Christians he is throwing to the lions. Alas, it is nothing new for those in power to practice the politics of resentment, claiming they are the ones being mistreated. (Sad.)
The production was rather... unconventional. It utilized audience interaction in ways that sometimes worked, but at times seemed unnecessary. Unfortunately, the show got panned in a review I read beforehand, so I went in with low expectations. To my surprise, though, the cast won me over, and I enjoyed the play quite a bit.
Yesterday, Tim Carroll, the new artistic director of the Shaw Festival, addressed the conference attendees. He was also the director of not just Androcles and the Lion, but also Saint Joan, which I saw that afternoon. It was a modernized, stripped-down production of the play, similar to the Bedlam production of Saint Joan I saw (and loved) a few years ago. Sara Topham played the title role, and was quite good.
We've also had a number of interesting speakers at the conference address issues in Saint Joan. Stanley Weintraub talked about how Shaw had presented a scene very similar to the play's epilogue in a short story called "The Emperor and the Little Girl." Brad Kent then spoke about Saint Joan and affect, hopefully pushing back against the appropriation of Joan of Arc's image by certain right-wing groups in France, a fact he acknowledged in his presentation. Mary Christian gave a very interesting paper on Joan as a middle-class heroine, pointing out that in the play she is neither a peasant nor a princess, but someone from the mid-level of society.
Most relevant to my own academic work on star performers, Robert Gaines spoke about the London production of Saint Joan with Sybil Thorndike. Shaw and Lewis Casson co-directed the production. Casson and Thorndike had been acting in a commercial hit by Henry Arthur Jones called The Lie but walked away from it in order to take a chance on Shaw's play. That risk paid off, and Saint Joan became an enormous success, with people lining up as early as 5 am just to get tickets.
Shaw felt that the epilogue to the play was absolutely necessary. When I first read the piece, I didn't agree, but after seeing the epilogue performed so successfully both by Bedlam and by the Shaw Festival, I can't imagine the play without it.
My own Joan of Arc play, Dark Night of the Soul, will have a reading in September. My take on the character is quite different from Shaw's, but seeing his play once again has given me renewed appreciation for what he did with the material.
Tomorrow, I give my presentation on Major Barbara. Wish me luck!