George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1905), which is the first Travelex £10 Season production in the NT Olivier this year, was once described as the first English play which has for its theme the struggle between two religions in one mind.
That mind belongs to a Salvation Army officer, Barbara Undershaft, whose father, Andrew Undershaft, is an all-powerful arms manufacturer who refuses to distinguish between business and morality and argues that no man’s soul can be saved until he is well fed, properly housed and fully employed.
Barbara’s vocation among the destitute and violent is shattered when her father signs a cheque to save the East End shelter. Money talks, whatever its provenance. Barbara’s chance to renew her religious faith comes when her fiancée, the Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins, is offered her father’s succession at the weapons factory and she the challenge of enlightening its contented work force, the acceptable face of capitalism.
In other words, can she replace one type of ecstatic commitment with another? Like Shaw’s Saint Joan, Barbara thrives on moral fanaticism. The flaw in Nicholas Hytner’s otherwise stately, jaggedly articulated and beautifully weighted production is that Hayley Atwell as Barbara doesn’t have the right acting chops for the role. She flutters prettily enough, but she’s never secure in gesture, demeanour or vocal expression.
This unbalances the contest with her father, supremely well played by Simon Russell Beale as a gravely pragmatic monster with a coarsened streak and a subdued, pause-pocked rhetorical style that allows his formative decision - never to starve, at any price - to hit home gloriously in the last act; the family have arrived en masse in Perivale St Andrew, his perfect new town – similar to Cadbury’s Bourneville, or the mill owner Titus Salt’s Saltaire in Yorkshire – to witness his beneficence based on weapons of mass destruction.
Designer Tom Pye flies in huge batteries of phallic grey bombs for this last act, denying us any spotless new town vistas and completing Shaw’s satirical intentions. The first and third act drawing room in Wilton Crescent, Belgravia, is handsomely furnished on a moving platform that recedes to reveal the grey, cheerless cold of the West Ham shelter.
This second act is a masterpiece of stagecraft, and Shaw’s victims of circumstance – Ian Burfield’s savage Bill Walker, Stephanie Jacob’s Dickensian Rummy Mitchens and Patrick Drury’s sour old Peter Shirley – are as engaging in their way as the Undershaft clan, supervised by Clare Higgins’ wonderfully imperious and blinkered Lady Britomart.
Until the last act becomes too clogged, the play remains an unalloyed pleasure on the ear, its irreverent and subversive manner of argument – only an Irishman could have written it – a joy forever. Paul Ready is an excellent Adolphus, supple and spring-heeled in thought, while the moon-faced, gently swaying John Heffernan is a perfect Stephen Undershaft, expert in nothing and therefore destined for politics; his scene with his father is a high point in the evening’s comedy playing.