Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. Court Theatre
It’s been many years since I attended the Shaw Festival. It’s a big, three-theatre going concern now, in the town of Niagara on the Lake, whose charm draws tourists relentlessly. The Court, where we saw The Madras House, is a made-over space, three-quarter round, with seats steeply raked; up toward the back the acoustics are not the very best.
But the company is very strong, and the direction, by Neil Munro, extremely clear and articulate — and in some ways brilliant, as was the set design by Peter Hartwell. Barker’s play is a bitter-sweet (more bitter than sweet) incisive overview of male-female relationships circa 1910 (this text being Barker’s 1925 revision), the organizing agent being the haute couture firm of Madras, a high-end department store where women’s (and men’s) fantasies are fulsomely satisfied but where the tensions, cross-purposes, misunderstandings, and contretemps endemic to female-male relations are sharply focused and given pith and moment. The “House” in the title is a doubled-over term, punning on the British use of “house” to identify an imposing edifice with a distinctive character (e.g. “India House”) and simultaneously looking at the word as a code for “dynasty” (e.g. the House of Hanover), with a glance also at the term as signifying a domestic or private establishment, a house that must be kept in order.
But it is disorder, and change, that rule here. The Madras House becomes the centripetal force that pulls the various aspects of human relations together into close contact. Neil Munro’s way of establishing this idea is to place a swivel chair at the center of the set and to use identical wood-and-leather upholstered couches in a variety of configurations to exemplify the pattern of movement toward the center, toward collision. Another useful metaphor might be “whirlpool,” a turning center that attracts irresistibly.
And so Munro superimposes a complex but clear and workable formal pattern on an action that on the surface seems disorganized and non-cumulative. And yet there is a simple “exterior” action, the imminent sale of the Madras House to a wealthy, idealistic American entrepreneur — a deal that is consummated in the penultimate act of the play. And there is a central character, Philip Madras, son of the eccentric Constantine Madras, founder of the House, who left the country several years before and moved to an Arab state, where he became a “Mohammedan,” expressing a conviction that European society was irretrievably corrupt because of its permissive treatment of women, allowing them to become independent public persons instead of keeping them where they belong, in the private retreat of the house (another meaning of the title). Philip, in early middle age, is confronted with a crisis involving a pregnant female clerk in his store, a crisis he attempts to handle in an up-to-date, enlightened way, but is fairly powerless under the circumstances: Miss Yates, the clerk, intends to keep the child and raise it as a single parent.
Thus the “woman in question” raises its troubled head. Barker’s dramaturgy is masterful here. He keeps us on the thematic track from first to last, yet takes us alternatively into the several public and private spaces of life where the issues are ripe for exploration. The most memorable and highly charged scene is the third act, set in the Madras House rotunda, where Eustace States the American entrepreneur has come to do the deal and where a remarkable parade of mannequins, lavishly dressed and hatted or provocatively attired in black lace underwear and sheer black stockings, occurs, and where Constantine Madras appears to oversee the sale of the House. Barker’s hand is very sure here, as is Munro’s. Munro’s plan is, generally, to dramatize forces on a collision course, and it is most fully realized in this scene, where mannequins and personages, and contradictory ideas and values, collide.
That leaves Act IV to attempt some reordering and resolution. There is a poignant scene between Constantine and his wife, Amelia Madras, Philip’s mother, whom Constantine has abandoned and who has hoped that he will give up his heterodox ideas and return to her “in his declining years” (a Victorian cliché pointed up in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore and Yeomen of the Guard). Her hopes are dashed, of course. Constantine will return to his happy exile the next day. That leaves Philip and his beautiful wife Jessica to attempt to reconcile their differences and “meet halfway.” Which they do. And so, a bittersweet ending to an extremely sophisticated and intelligent play. Not to all tastes, as Dennis Kennedy says in a commentary in the program — but made very accessible by Munro’s clear-sighted, well-paced production and the acting of an accomplished troupe.
Munro has also taken the expedient of incorporating Barker’s lengthy, acerbic stage directions as voice-over narrative (expertly read by Munro himself), an interesting and successful ploy that brings the readers’ and playgoers’ experiences more closely into alignment. I liked this production greatly, though I could also see why the play has a very slight production history — a fact exemplified by the claim in the program that this is the North American premiere.