After the initial brief London run in 1933, Shaw’s On the Rocks was rarely produced in either Britain or North America. In director Joesph Ziegler’s crisp production, it is a play that is entertaining, provocative -but not as much as it could be- and in some ways very relevant to Canada’s political climate. We are told, for example, that “every politician is made worse by a life spent in politics”. This observation gets an enthusiastic hand from the audience. The carefully considered retorts that characters speak throughout are a constant pleasure. My favorite line, I think, is “You have the charm of a majestic ruin.”
One does sense some loss of potential impact here, though, when the theatrical electricity of complex characters and situations takes a turn toward the simplistic or silly. We get the point that the major political players in Britain are variously lacking -we do keep an eye on Ottawa, after all- and don’t need Steven Sutcliffe sent into exaggeration as Dexter to over-prove the point. Idiocy desperately contained appears more ridiculous, no? Again, see Ottawa.
Even with GBS having fun with several names to lighten GBS doing outrageous and controversial, there are very serious matters still bluntly on the table but sometimes too elusive in realization. Much as I am stirred by Marla McLean as Aloysia giving a very passionate Trafalgar Square oration, I sense that containing the passion might have drawn us even more to an already interesting inner life that she has. Having the icy fury of Cherissa Richards’ Dame Adhira more intimately directed at individuals would be even more scary than her declarative stance. The Court House is a small and intimate space, after all and whispers from an inner world that motivates politics can be deadly here.
Still, even as we feel a missed opportunity to more effectively reveal the play’s implications, On the Rocks remains a thought-provoking play in this production. It addresses the fear of “boiling socialism,” the nationalization of everything, and of course Bolshevism, especially among those whose wealth is unearned. In due course we have a riot by the working classes, otherwise called “masses of unemployed” and “pacifist cattle” who make speeches on street corners. It is noted that “no one ever throws a rock when listening to a speech,” so ideology and power are here tempered with pragmatism that allows the working class their soap box.
When Dame Adhira is called a “silly nigger bitch,” she gets to respond with “to hell with the lot of you” and we have a potent theatrical scene, one that gives the anti-colonialists and feminists in the audience an opportunity to applaud loudly. When Bemrose, in a carefully measured performance from Norman Browning, calls her a heathen and Sir Arthur, played flexibly but also lacking somewhat in authority of person by Peter Krantz, astutely notes “that one will cost us India,” we sense both the entrenched colonialist mentality of the British, the vulnerability of principles in politics which is all pragmatic and opportunistic maneuvering, and vested interests all about.
The cast leap into their parts with relish and sometimes with too much hot sauce. Peter Krantz as Sir Arthur seems a self-satisfied man of irritating (to his political foes) self-assured smugness. He speaks with a pinched urgency in his voice and suffers, we are told, from “a common English malady…. an underworked brain.” Steven Sutcliffe as Dexter boils with a self-indulgent frustration and whether you find him too hysterical or delightfully pushed over the top is your call. Tom Marriott’s pragmatic Commissioner of Police, Basham, displays an acute but benign sense of irony that freshens the play whenever he speaks. Anthony Beckenn’s Mayor is meaty with bull doggedness, while Guy Bannerman is solid in his ways of the world savoir-faire. The Shaw Festival does ensemble so bloody well.
There is much appealingly intense female energy throughout this production and the “Get off the earth” speech from Marla McLean’s Aloysia is the most extraverted of the lot. It is played with touching fierce gusto and sounds like a humanistic canon or cannon. Mary Haney is, as usual, perfectly etched, but with little to do. She is delightfully adept at plasticity in body and voice and shapes many an innuendo nonetheless. Cherissa Richards brings a balancing tone of elegance to the goings-on as Adhira and the lower key Claire Julian as The Lady is quietly serene yet quite threatening.